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Presidential Strike Letter

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.

In Solidarity,

Joe Henry,
GTFF President

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GTFF declares impasse, proceeds towards strike

This evening, members of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) packed the auditorium of South Eugene High School for an Emergency General Membership Meeting. The meeting was called to allow GTFF members to discuss the final proposal made by the University of Oregon Administration’s bargaining team and to ultimately decide whether to hold a contract ratification vote or a strike authorization vote. GTFs have been bargaining with the Administration since November of 2013 and have been working since March of 2014 with an expired CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement). After a lengthy and democratic discussion, GTFF members ultimately voted to declare impasse and hold a strike authorization vote in the coming week.

Negotiations with the University Administration over what constitutes an equitable CBA have been a long and arduous process. The GTFF bargaining team, composed of GTFs who volunteer their time, has worked tirelessly to defend against the University’s proposals to increase student fees and establish premium caps on our health insurance. Through those proposals, the Administration sought to transfer a significant portion of the risk of increases in healthcare premiums and student fees onto graduate students, all in an effort to save the University money. It took the Administration until the summer of 2014—a time when not enough GTFF members tare present on campus o ratify a contract — to finally offer revised proposals on wages, student fees, and insurance premium caps.

Despite the fact that GTFF members voted to authorize a strike last spring, the University has failed to make significant movement on the issue of paid medical and parental leave. Medical leave is crucial to providing a sense of security and safety to GTFs and their families, in cases of serious illness and when it is not safe, healthy or reasonable for GTFs to continue to perform work-related duties. Paid leave would also ensure a high quality of education for undergraduate students enrolled in courses taught by GTFs (one-third of all courses taught at the UO).

Finally, the issue of parental leave is grounded in issues of gender equity. The challenge of balancing graduate coursework, research, teaching and having a child—without even minimal paid leave—discourages many female GTFs from pursuing degrees in higher education and professional track positions. The UO would be a more competitive institution if it attracted and selected the best from all graduate student candidates, not just those without family responsibilities or goals. Similarly, parental leave for the partners of those who have just given birth would allow them to share in valuable household work and take part in critical bonding time with new children. The GTFF has urged the Administration to promote practices to ensure gender equity in classrooms, in labs, and across the campus as a whole; this process begins with how the Administration treats its graduate employees.

Throughout the bargaining process, the Administration has acknowledged the low cost of leave, (roughly $35,000 annually to cover the entire 1500 GTFF membership) but has stated that their opposition is a matter of “principle” rather than cost. This is unacceptable. What does it say about the values and priorities of the UO Administration that they refuse to pay a minimal cost to improve the level of undergraduate education on this campus and to guarantee equitable treatment of GTFs in UO graduate programs?

Another primary concern of GTFF members is obtaining a wage increase that would allow some of the lowest-paid members to come closer to meeting the cost-of-living in Eugene (numbers provided by the University’s own Financial Aid Office). During the spring term, the GTFF’s autonomously governed Health and Welfare Trust worked with its insurance company to negotiate a new health insurance plan for GTFs, a plan which will save the UO an estimated $250,000 in the coming year. The GTFF had hoped that these savings, realized by the GTFF Health and Welfare Trust, might incentivize the Administration to offer an improved wage proposal. However, the Administration’s most recent proposal still falls nearly $250,000 short of the 5.5% increase last proposed by the GTFF.

GTFs do not want to strike; we would rather agree to an equitable contract that prioritizes and values the work done by graduate employees every day on this campus. And yet the Administration has continued to prioritize profit over the health and wellbeing of GTFs and the overall quality of education offered at the UO. In light of these realities, next week we will hold a ballot election to authorize the bargaining team to call for a strike if the Administration refuses to meet the “bottom line” set by our members. As of tonight, the GTFF has declared “impasse” with the Administration; we must now wait a period of thirty days before we can legally strike under Oregon State labor law. During this time, we implore the Administration to reconsider its priorities and offer GTFs an equitable contract proposal that meets the needs of the graduate employees at the UO.

 

In Solidarity,

Joe Henry

President GTFF

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Emergency GMM – October 17

Last week, the GTFF executive council called for an emergency GMM to for the members to make some decisions about bargaining: Does the current proposal by the Administration meet the needs of graduate students, or should we continue along the path towards a strike? We’ll have to have a final ballot box vote after this meeting, but the meeting will set up exactly what that vote will be (be it ratify the current offer or authorize a strike). We need all members to tell the bargaining team what to do. It’s very important that as many GTFs as possible make it to that meeting, so everyone has an opportunity to share their opinion and hear from GTFs from all over campus. Hopefully you’ve had, or will soon have, department meetings about bargaining to get informed, figure out how you feel, and start the conversation before Friday. Information about what’s up with bargaining is available here: http://gtff3544.net/2014-bargaining/.

Further details about the meeting:

  • Friday, October 17
  • 5:30pm-9pm
  • South Eugene High School Cafeteria (400 E 19th Ave)
  • Food (vegan and gluten free options) and non-alcoholic drinks provided
  • Kids table available, or contact amber@gtff.net to request childcare subsidy if needed to attend
  • Social event afterwards, location TBA
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October Agitator

Download the October 2014 issue of the GTFF’s monthly newsletter here: AgitatorOct14

Or, swing by the GTFF office for a print copy of your own or to share!

In this issue:

  • Welcome from the GTFF President
  • A look at parenting as GTF
  • An introduction to the jobs and goals of your executive board members.

. . . and much (ok, just a little bit) more!

 

As always, we encourage all GTFs to submit articles to the Agitator. The opinions, lives and creative endeavors of all our members are important to us and the Agitator gives them a space to share those with the rest of the membership.

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GMM and Clarifications

The GTFF had another packed house for its General Membership Meeting (GMM) held on Friday, October 3rd. The Bargaining Team presented new and returning GTFs with a detailed account of bargaining and mediation through September.  No major bargaining decisions were made at Friday’s GMM.  Stewards requested that their members have more time in their departments to discuss the current proposals, as it is all new information for most GTFs.  So, the GTFF is encouraging GTFs of each department to get together to discuss the state of bargaining and the current proposals on the table. These proposals, as well as a plethora of information about bargaining, can be found here. In two weeks, the GTFF will hold another GMM where GTFs can discuss their views on the proposals and ultimately decide the next steps we will take as a union.

With GTFs returning to campus last week, many GTFF members have reported hearing misinformation about bargaining, in particular from pieces published in “Around the O”. We would like to address some of these issues, in order to clear up misunderstandings about the ongoing negotiations between the GTFF and the Administration.

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