Union Organizing at The Evergreen State College

By Steven Kant

The Evergreen State College began having classes in 1971 and quickly became a center of alternative education, attracting progressive people to Olympia for many years. The college curriculum included full-time academic programs that often studied radical subjects. Some programs were run by students and faculty on a democratic basis. The  college administration often included student input and had “Disappearing Task Forces” to make decisions.

Staff at the college, however, were state employees and worked under conditions governed by the state civil service system. In these early days, Evergreen administrators tended to ignore the state rules and treated everyone as part of the “community family,” although Daddy was actually in charge. 

Inevitable conflict began to surface around 1978 or 1979. A custodian named Bruce VanDeWalker was fired in response to unsubstantiated charges from a relative of his supervisor. The case was appealed through the civil service system, and the college spent large sums of money in a futile and wasteful fight to stop VanDeWalker’s reinstatement. This and several other conflicts prompted staff employees to become aware that they had no real power at the college. Many staff people were hurt and surprised by the actions of the college administration. It was time to organize. 

Some of the maintenance and building trades employees had union experience in previous jobs. The organizers decided to work with the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE). WFSE is part of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), one of the largest and most progressive unions in the U.S. and Canada.

Union activities caused a lot of conflict within the college and among the staff. Many employees were strongly attached to Evergreen, some were former students, and some had students in their families. As in many organizing drives, friends and coworkers were split by their differing views.

I posed a question a few years later to Doug Hitch, a long-time employee who managed the wood shop and art studios. “For the staff, was Evergreen ever really a happy and wonderful ‘family’ environment?”  

“It was if you believed it,” Doug replied.

The organizing campaign succeeded in winning the creation of a bargaining unit, but there was no contract yet. In those days, the state legislature created the laws that governed salaries and benefits, but workers could negotiate a contract to cover other issues like grievance procedures and working conditions.

I was hired at the college in 1980. My job was to manage a small self-paced learning lab and math center. I got involved with the ongoing campaign to establish a union shop at the college. In the private sector, in states like Washington without “right-to-work” laws, a union shop, where all employees are members and pay dues, is created by negotiations. In Washington, the civil service law provided for a union shop election instead. To win the election, we had to get a majority of all those people in the bargaining unit who could vote, not just a majority of those who actually voted. In addition, the law allowed us to talk to other employees about the election on work time, as long as it didn’t interfere with our jobs.

I was a co-chair of the union shop committee. We turned a room in the lab into a control center and began holding weekly meetings of the committee. With about two hundred employees in the unit and about twenty people coming to organizing meetings, we were able to do a good job of talking to everyone. Before the time of personal computers, we worked off of written lists of employees. At times, we went overboard. I remember one employee who was lobbied by a city bus driver (probably Carol Elwood) on the way home and by his mother (a friend of mine). He finally made a polite request for us to let up, as he was a union supporter and already in favor of the union shop.

The campaign was supported by WFSE organizers Tam Tocher and Helen Lee. They helped make employee lists, printed flyers, and got us t-shirts with the slogan “Make Evergreen a Better Place to Work.” 

There were many staff people involved. Before I worked there, I had met the program secretaries. Diane Lutz (my partner at the time), Sharron Coontz, and Jan Stentz. Employees got involved for various reasons. Some were already union activists, some had union backgrounds from their family, and some were just unhappy with how the college ignored the wishes of the staff. Diane had parents that were union members (a sheet-metal worker and a teacher), and Sharron was an activist with a radical family. Like the others, I didn’t come to Evergreen with a plan to organize a union, but my family background involved four grandparents who were union activists and organizers, and my parents grew up in worker-managed apartment buildings in New York City that were built by the garment unions. When union activity appeared, we all joined in.

The election was successful with a two-thirds or maybe three-fourths yes vote, an unusual result.  We were in a stronger position to tackle contract negotiations, but there was a lot of work ahead. Dan Evans, the popular former governor and Evergreen’s president, did not approve of having a union contract. As governor, he signed some of the laws and enjoyed union support,  but his pleas to the union were not effective. We went ahead and drafted a contract proposal and prepared for negotiations.

The college dragged its feet whenever possible, but we were finally able to begin negotiations with the personnel director leading a management committee. I have always enjoyed it when you have to face people with bad intent who are very unskilled at evil, and this was the case at that time. The management’s proposal appeared to have been created the night before by copying passages from a union-busting handbook. It referred to the college as “The Company,” which prompted a lot of  joking about whether the CIA was involved in some way. After many long, discouraging days of negotiations, we reached an agreement that was ratified by the members.

The story was not over yet. The college’s Board of Trustees refused to sign the agreement on the grounds that it did not have what is called a “management rights clause.” This is a standard section of all contracts that confirms the right of the management to run the college. It was not in the contract because the personnel director did not know about this and had never proposed it. In union negotiations, the governing body of an organization or the owners of a business must either negotiate directly with the union or they can delegate this authority to someone else, but their representatives must be authorized to make a final agreement. The negotiators were allowed to consult at any time with the Board of Trustees, but it is an unfair labor practice for the trustees to refuse to sign a contract that their committee had agreed to, especially with the complaint that the contract did not include a clause that they had never even proposed.

After many months, a court decision was handed down that fined the college and forced them to sign the agreement. The new age had finally begun.

The college also had student employees that talked about organizing over the years, but the student population was so transient that organizing efforts were difficult to sustain. Evergreen students were often older and more experienced than most college students, and the college tended to exploit the students by paying them minimum wage to perform regular staff jobs. For example, one staff secretary who went on leave to attend Evergreen was employed in her same job at her same desk, but for a low student hourly wage. The state rules were clear that if a student performed a job normally done by a staff person, the student had to receive the staff hourly rate, but Evergreen totally ignored this rule.

I ran into this problem when I managed the self-paced math lab and hired students to tutor and to check tests. In typical bureaucratic style, they would allocate one position and I would hire the six I needed, and nobody seemed to notice. Through my union activities, I knew that at South Puget Sound Community College and at other state colleges, these duties were performed by a staff person at a specific hourly rate. When the college ignored my appeal that cited the state rules, we solved the problem with mathematics—I instructed the student employees to find the ratio of the staff hourly rate to the lower student hourly rate, and then asked them to multiply the hours on their weekly timesheets by that ratio, so they did receive the right pay in the end. Algebra can be useful in some situations!

The Evergreen organizing effort was affected by the politics of WFSE, and Evergreen members had a progressive effect on WFSE as well. I went on to be involved in the local union and the WFSE executive board. In later years, I worked with WFSE and the American Federation of Teachers at South Puget Sound Community College. When I left the education world, I started a company to create software for labor unions. This was converted to a worker-owned cooperative that now has about twenty employees. Tam Tocher later worked as a union representative for WFSE and then as the AFSCME International Field Services Director. Helen Lee became the Director of the Evergreen Labor Education and Resource Center, and later worked in union education in California. Diane Lutz became an organizer, union representative, and then the WFSE Director of Negotiations. Sharron Coontz became a high school teacher and continued to be a local activist. Jan was the most wonderful jazz vocalist I have ever heard; along with a number of other well-known jazz musicians, she performed in local bars and other venues until her death in 1998. She was rumored to have never made a typing mistake.

Evergreen faculty organized a union in 2006. The administrative employees in Student Support Services organized a bargaining unit with WFSE in about 2013.

About twenty-five years after the organizing campaign, the union members at Evergreen asked Tam Tocher if she could come to a union meeting to talk about the history of the union at Evergreen. Tam could not attend, but she asked Diane Lutz and me to go to the meeting. We had the experience of telling the members about a campaign and a world that they knew almost nothing about. Only a few employees from that time were still working at the college. The current employees were impressed by how bad the conditions had been and how those types of unpleasant conflicts did not happen any more. We were reminded that what we did was important and has a continuing effect today.