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‘Impasse’ declared in SOU contract negotiations

Months of negotiations preceded stalemate; now the state requires a “cooling off period"

After months of negotiation and mediation, the Association of Professors of Southern Oregon University and the school’s administrators announced they are deadlocked over a new contract for faculty.

The stalemate triggers a required 30-day “cooling off period” — a term coined by the Oregon Employment Relations Board — but it doesn’t mean negotiations actually stop. Meanwhile, SOU and the faculty union must submit “final offers” to the board, which can be enforced in full or in part by the university.

The union can strike if it does not like SOU’s decision to enforce a final offer. In an interview with the Mail Tribune, APSOU President Donna Lane talked about the possibility of a strike, which could be five weeks away.

“This is all an effort for the students, and unfortunately, the students will hit the brunt of this, which is why we want to avoid (a strike),” she said.

The faculty union announced late Tuesday it had reached an impasse, leading the university to respond the following day. In a press release, the school’s new president, Rick Bailey, sounded a note of optimism.

“SOU remains committed to reaching a reasonable, negotiated settlement that is sustainable and serves all parties — our students, the faculty union, the university and the broader campus community,” Bailey said. “We look forward to resolving any remaining differences while continuing to focus on providing the best possible educational opportunities for our students.”

In an interview Wednesday, Lane said she did not think the impasse would happen and her faculty members are “discouraged” and “sad that it’s come to this.”

“I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic that we can figure this out, but they’re really digging their heels in,” said Lane, who is a professor in the School of Business.

In declaring an impasse, Lane’s initial statement on behalf of her union said that SOU rejected the “lowest possible offer” by members, who are “unwilling to accept a contract with significant givebacks on salary, professional development monies, broadened program cutting powers, and reduced grievance provisions.”

Lane also spoke of reductions in the number of SOU faculty over the years, while administrative positions have increased. The same can be said of faculty payroll relative to administration, she added.

Lane claims the university “sought aggressive cuts” to the pay scales for faculty, regardless of their rank. And while the union agreed to “some changes for more senior faculty,” it would not accept a “lowball offer” on raises for three to four years.

SOU’s statement Wednesday hit on pay, in particular. The school said it offered the union 6.25% to 9% wage increases over three years, beginning in September, for the “majority of union members, while some junior faculty could receive pay increases of anywhere from 9% to 12%.

“SOU’s wage offer is more than double the nationwide average for faculty, and its benefits offer is the best for any state employees on the West Coast,” the university’s news release stated.

SOU also claimed the union rejected an offer that included school paying for up to 97% of faculty members’ medical and life insurance benefits. Contributions equal to 33% could have been paid into state-sponsored faculty members’ retirement accounts, the university said in the news release.

The claims about negotiations from both camps came after SOU convened a committee last week to look at its financial picture. Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission noted in its Financial Conditions Analysis of Oregon Public Universities that “SOU is still facing a challenging financial future and (is) working to turn it around.”

Lane’s initial statement, in part, said that faculty are “unmoved by the university’s poverty claims.”

Another blistering statement by the faculty union Wednesday began by saying SOU administrators are “wrong in suggesting that the breakdown in negotiations is related to money.”

“The core of the disagreement is about equitable treatment of the faculty, and about contract components,” the union’s Wednesday statement said.

While the union has been “bargaining in good faith each and every session,” SOU has shown a “lack of respect and reciprocation,” according to Lane in the same statement.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.