Strike threat looms at MJC, Columbia College; district, faculty in contract standoff

Here are facts about the Yosemite Community College District

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As two sides are deadlocked in a three-year unresolved labor negotiation, a possible faculty strike is the buzz on campus at Modesto Junior College and Columbia College near Sonora.

Members of the Yosemite Faculty Association voted last month to give its leadership authority to call a strike. Union leaders say it would rather give face-to-face talks with the Yosemite Community College District another try, but a work stoppage is possible after a fact-finding process is completed in November.

In a recent email, the YCCD said it had heard concerns from students the two community colleges could be closed in event of a strike. The district has assured the colleges will stay open if the teachers leave classrooms for the picket line.

The impacts of a strike seem unavoidable at the two campuses with a combined enrollment of more than 25,000 students. The YCCD would need to find teachers to cover lecture classes, labs and online courses offered at the colleges.

“You can’t just pluck a physics professor off the streets,” said Jim Sahlman, an MJC communications professor and YFA president.

In a FAQ for students, the union says it is doing everything possible to settle with YCCD “but the district has refused to budge.” The YCCD has posted its position on its website, saying it favors a fair settlement that “honors the work of faculty, focuses on student success, and maintains the financial stability” of the colleges.

Students are talking about the labor situation and what it could mean for their education. “It is important for the faculty to get the pay they should be getting,” MJC student Anna Pedroza said Tuesday. “At the same time, the students don’t know if their classes will be postponed.”

Coni Chavez, a YCCD spokeswoman, said a number of steps remain before faculty members could go on strike. A fact-finding report with recommendations from an unbiased third party is expected to be released any day and that could lead to additional talks with the faculty union.

A work stoppage would be an option if there are no meaningful negotiations for a new multiyear contract or the two sides don’t agree to terms. “The district remains committed to work in good faith to reach a settlement,” Chavez said.

The YFA points out that initial contract talks began three years ago and the district has not put a contract proposal on the table since February. The two sides took the steps to declare an impasse in late March. Two sessions with a state mediator did not resolve their differences.

A two-day fact-finding process was held last month and still holds promise of resolving the labor situation.

The district’s proposal is a 6 percent raise spread over three years, with some professors getting 7 percent from a proposed adjustment to the salary schedule for faculty.

The teachers and district are at impasse over compensation and a proposal to increase class sizes to upward of 45 students. In a major issue, faculty members want to see a plan for bringing their salaries to the median in a survey of community colleges in California. Though many full-time tenured professors at MJC have six-figure incomes, YCCD faculty salaries are near the bottom of that survey.

The YFA also represents instructors who are paid hourly rates for teaching part-time at MJC and Columbia.

In a 2007 agreement, the YCCD and faculty agreed the salary comparison would include some inland colleges — Delta College of Stockton, Kern Community College in Bakersfield and West Valley in Coalinga — and some schools in the Bay Area or Southern California, including Chabot, Las Positas, Contra Costa, San Jose Evergreen and Long Beach.

Faculty members say the district has never produced a plan for moving their compensation to the middle of the survey. District leaders have maintained that median pay is a goal, not a promise. With faculty salaries 13 percent below the median, raising the compensation would require a double-digit pay increase, the district has said.

In sharing its position on its website, the YCCD points to uncertainties over a new state formula for funding community colleges and how it will impact the district’s annual budgets.

Sahlman counters that the 2007 agreement was baseless without a firm plan for lifting salaries toward the middle over time. In other words, faculty pay would not reach the median during a new three-year contract but over a longer period.

“We have not said ‘give us (an immediate) 13 percent raise.’ What we have said is how long will it take to get there,” Sahlman explained.

Sahlman added that the latest assessment showed the YCCD will be a winner under the new state formula for funding community colleges.

To keep the campuses open in a strike, the district presumably would use substitute teachers in classrooms, plus any faculty members who cross the picket line. The YFA has warned that using teachers without the minimum qualifications for college courses could threaten the integrity of the courses and students’ ability to transfer class credits to a four-year college.

There’s concern that students could lose partial credit for courses in a strike lasting several weeks, if classes are not held for the required minimum hours.

The district believes it can come up with a strike contingency plan that “meets students’ needs in the best way possible using available resources,” Chavez said.

“It is our earnest hope that a strike can be avoided,” Chavez added.

Faculty members are hoping for meaningful negotiations after the fact-finding report is released. Their leadership claims, however, that they are prepared to walk out if that’s needed to break the stalemate. The vote in September to authorize a strike was 95 percent in favor with 85 percent of the membership casting ballots.

“The faculty does not want to strike but the faculty will if that is what it comes to,” Sahlman said. “We are having to prepare for this because so far the district has ignored us.”

In another maneuver this week, the union challenged the legality of three YCCD board resolutions that outline emergency strike procedures. The resolutions would dock faculty pay and benefits for missing work and authorize the chancellor to prepare a disciplinary report for professors who have unexcused absences.

The union said the resolutions, on the YCCD’s board agenda for Wednesday’s meeting, amounted to scare tactics.

The tensions also coincide with an election that will put at least three new trustees on the YCCD board. Margie Bulkin, retiring Tuolumne County schools superintendent, and retired educator Denise Springer are running in Area 1; Matt Erickson, a Waterford school board member, and retired educator Nancy Hinton are squared off in Area 2; and three are vying for the Area 7 seat: school outreach manager Homero Mejia, school technician Antonio Aguilar and student John Tyler Jr.

Trustee Anne DeMartini is seeking another term in Area 4 but faces a challenge from Penny Williams, a retired university professor from Patterson.

Some faculty members in red YFA shirts were in the audience as the candidates engaged in a forum Tuesday evening at the MJC East Campus.