October 24, 2014
This past week the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) voted overwhelmingly to authorize their bargaining team to call for a strike if the University of Oregon’s Administration continues not to meet the needs of their graduate employees. Impasse will begin on Monday, starting a 30 day “cooling off” period between both parties. During that time, the GTFF hopes the Administration will meet again with the GTFF to work out a final contract before a strike takes place.
The GTFF is a member-run organization that represents almost 1,500 graduate teachers and researchers employed by the University of Oregon. Every two years, the GTFF bargains with the University’s Administration for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Graduate Teaching Fellows (GTFs) at the University of Oregon have been bargaining for almost a year and have been working under an expired CBA since last March.
Members voted to authorize a strike over two issues in particular: wages and paid leave. GTFs voted to maintain the bottom line they decided upon last spring. That bottom line includes: (1) a 5.5% raise to minimum GTF salaries for each of the next two years to begin to close a gap between wages and the cost of living, and (2) two weeks each of paid medical and parental leave annually for every GTF. The Administration did offer new proposals during the summer, but are still unwilling to agree to a contract that meets the needs of GTFs.
GTFs at the University of Oregon are paid minimum wages that fall more than $200 below what the University of Oregon’s own Financial Aid Office estimates it costs to live as a graduate student. These costs are tied directly to rent, utilities, groceries, and academic supplies. Graduate students regularly take out student loans and borrow money from their families in order to meet these basic needs. Overall, around 56% of graduate students make a gross wage that does not meet the University’s Financial Aid Office estimates. After taxes, student fees, and insurance costs, graduate student earnings fall even further below the cost of living in Eugene.
Graduate students have no form of paid leave from work if they are ill, injured, or have recently had children. If a GTF is in a bicycle accident, needs to have his/her appendix removed, or has just given birth, there is no policy that allows that GTF to miss work. If a GTF chooses to take time off, s/he is at risk for wage reduction and insurance termination at a time when it is most needed. The loss of a tuition waiver during unpaid leave (a benefit afforded to graduate employees at nearly all major universities) poses an additional financial hardship for graduate students. In short, this policy forces graduate students to return to work before it is advised by a physician.
As a group that teaches around a 1/3 of courses at the University of Oregon, the working conditions of graduate employees are the learning conditions of our students. Our health and well-being directly impact the quality of education that undergraduates receive. GTFs taking heavy pain medication, as well as suffering from head injuries, or have barely slept while taking care of a newborn cannot successfully teach courses or do world-class research. The struggle to balance the costs of food and rent places unnecessary stress on graduate students and distracts from their already intensive work and academic progress at the University of Oregon.
The GTFF does not stand alone. The executive committee of SEIU Local 085, the union of classified staff at the University of Oregon, has submitted a letter to the GTFF in support of their proposals. United Academics, the faculty union, has submitted a letter to Interim President Coltrane calling for settling a fair contract with the GTFF. This week, the University Faculty Senate passed a resolution encouraging the Administration to settle a contract that appropriately addresses the needs of graduate employees.
GTFs have chosen to come to graduate school to educate both ourselves and the community in which we live. However, the day-to-day reality of many GTFs is unacceptable, and yet easily correctable. A living wage and minimal paid leave are not radical proposals. Most industrial nations have secured paid leave, both medical and parental. In an article in The Atlantic (“The Risky Business of Paternal Leave” from December 29, 2013), UO Interim President Scott Coltrane has argued that “especially because parental leave can depress long-term earnings, new policies should focus on wage replacement and ensuring fair treatment of parents in the workplace, regardless of gender.” The Eugene City Council recently voted to create a medical leave ordinance for all private sector employees. All classified staff working part-time at UO earn paid leave, making part-time faculty and GTFs as the only part-time employees who do not have access to any form of paid leave. Additionally, GTFs are prohibited from working beyond part-time status, preventing them from ever meeting the University’s defined line to earn leave. The strike represents a culmination of the GTFF’s principled fight against a negative trend in University decision-making, one which affects the quality of undergraduate education, the University’s prestige, and the caliber of scholars and educators that the University of Oregon attracts.
GTFs do not want to strike; they want to finalize an equitable contract that prioritizes and values the work done by graduate employees every day on this campus. Yet the Administration has continued to prioritize profit over the health and wellbeing of GTFs and the overall quality of education offered at the University of Oregon. Over the next 30 days, the GTFF implores the Administration to reconsider its priorities and offer GTFs an equitable contract proposal that meets the needs of the graduate employees. The Board of Trustees has designated the authority to President Coltrane to manage bargaining with the GTFF. GTFs stated publicly where they stand on these issues. They hope that President Coltrane stands with them, their students, and the University community.