Photo depicting a group of faculty wearing jackets and sweaters posing outside the Siegal Center, the Seattle Colleges district headquarters, holding protest signs that read "Fund Faculty Wages," "Fund Faculty Raises," "Let Us In," and "0% is not enough."

Seattle Colleges Professors Protest Stagnant Salaries While Inflation Soars

by Ari Robin McKenna

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On Tuesday, April 24, a group of Seattle Colleges professors protested outside the Broadway Performance Hall before walking to their district headquarters, Siegal Center. Inside, union leaders, who professors say aren’t fully representing their needs, were bargaining. Their salaries for the next three years hung in the balance between the 0% raise professors say was initially offered by Seattle Colleges, the 15% raise the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Seattle Local 1789 is bargaining for, and the 40% raise they say is necessary to keep them afloat during historic national inflation in a city where the cost of living is over 50% above the national average.

Professors and some of their students chanted phrases like “Let us in” and “Work with us, not against us,” “We will win,” and “At the table, not on the menu.” They held up signs to passersby and honking cars reading “0% is not enough,” “Fund Faculty Raises,” “AFT Worker Solidarity,” and “SCD Says Faculty are Worth 0%.” 

Photo depicting rows of faculty dressed in jackets and face masks chanting through megaphones and holding protest signs up at a brick building.
Seattle Colleges professors chant “Let us in!” outside the Siegel Center, where the district’s offices are located. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

Zahra Alavi, an English teacher who works primarily with Emergent Multilingual Learners, spoke to the Emerald outside Siegal Center about the vital importance of community colleges — such as the three Seattle College campuses in North, Central, and South Seattle — as part of the overall public education system. “They’re [community colleges] the entry point for so many older students who’ve been in the workforce and who want to change their direction. Community college is the way that provides upward mobility for so many people who struggled through high school or who really couldn’t afford a four-year institution. It is the quintessential American dream. It’s open access. It’s a way for upward mobility, and it’s a way to get education so that you can improve your life for your family. Community colleges are absolutely essential to the functioning of our society.”

Peter Knutson, an anthropology professor who has worked at Seattle Colleges for 42 years, says professors are getting desperate and could end up striking.

Though he has been able to keep teaching over the decades because he supports himself by commercial fishing in Alaska every summer, Knutson says that full-time and part-time staff are facing a dire inability to survive in the city where they work, and many face food and housing insecurity. Knutson says many professors are barely able to pay their rent, and it is common for part-time professors to get by on food stamps. He also mentions a Seattle Colleges tenured professor who lives in a van outside the city limits of Seattle because his Seattle College salary hasn’t kept pace with rent increases and the cost of living here.

“Basically, we [Seattle Colleges] are the working class, marginalized schools, and so we get half the per-student funding from the state that the U Dub [University of Washington] gets, and we have a top-heavy administration on top of that. Technically, it’s illegal for us to strike. Who cares about that anymore? It’s getting to that point where all you can do is withhold your labor. They’re not listening.”

A look at the most recent data (2019) on Open Payroll certainly reflects these professors’ concerns about the cost of living in Seattle and wage inequality within their institution. At the three campuses, there were 50 people making over $100,000, and 49 were administrators of various titles: chancellors and vice chancellors, presidents and vice presidents, deans, officers, managers and executives, and exactly one full-time faculty member.

The average salary for Seattle Colleges full-time faculty was $73,190 in 2020, less than all adjacent community college systems except Highline, with Bellevue at $80,206, Renton at $78,800, and Shoreline at $75,509. Taking into account Seattle’s $82,000 cost of living (for someone who is single without kids) and inflation that has surged over 25% in 2022 alone, it seems that to teach at one of the Seattle Colleges, you would need to live outside the city whose name the colleges bear. Seattle Colleges’ spokesperson had not replied to the Emerald’s questions at the time of publishing.

Seattle Colleges professors protest for improved pay. (Video: Ari Robin McKenna)

Anna Hackman, a Humanities faculty member who teaches classes on intercultural communication, media studies, and hip-hop theory, was excited that there has been rank-and-file faculty solidarity across Seattle Colleges’ three campuses, but she was incensed by the injustice surrounding their work. “Our chancellor makes more [$310,800 in 2019] than the governor of Washington State [$171,898 currently], while we have faculty who can barely make rent, who are experiencing homelessness, who will have to work multiple jobs just to make basic ends meet.”

Hackman said professors feel this discrepancy daily, and being devalued isn’t limited to salary or living conditions, it even shows up in their classrooms and threatens to undermine the education they’re committed to providing students — unless they organize. “We can have our courses cut at any time … They try to treat us as dispensable, but what we understood when we started coming together is that we are the first point of contact for students, the faculty, the staff, student-facing academic workers; we have the most interaction with them. We are the college.”

Seattle College student Egel Legecy, one of those attending the protest, couldn’t agree more. Though they struggled with houselessness during their time at community college, they were able to chalk it up as a period of growth because of the support of their professors — and in particular Anna Hackman.

“Anna has helped me through so much the past two quarters. I learned so much about myself and the world through a tough time,” said Legecy.

While praising the experience they had at a Seattle College, Legecy couldn’t agree less with how their professors are devalued. “I’ve learned so much in college. I’ve grown so much. I’m so grateful for Seattle Central College, and I’m grateful for Seattle Central College because of the faculty, not because of the chancellor. I don’t even know who the fuck they are! I don’t get why they’re getting paid so much while our teachers are fighting for survival. It’s unfair. It’s messed up.”

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him through his website.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle Colleges professors protest for improved pay. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

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