Bargaining Update – June 20, 2014

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GTFF collective bargaining agreement negotiations resumed on June 20th after a short break while the GTFF Health and Welfare Trust worked out details of GTFF health insurance for the following academic year. Below is an overview of the session held on June 20, 2014.

 

GTFF Bargaining Summary and Look Ahead – June 20, 2014

Written by Richard Wagner (Physics) of the GTFF Bargaining Committee

In the last session of GTFF Bargaining:

  • The Administration’s bargaining team declined to further discuss the financial package for GTFs without a decision about GTF health insurance for the next academic year. Was that decision made?
  • The GTFF membership had just voted 98% in favor of authorizing a strike if the Administration was unwilling to provide GTFs with fair wages, improved healthcare, real limits on student fees and paid leave. Will the Administration agree to those terms?
  • The incoming University of Oregon Board of Trustees had not heard a peep about the status of GTFF bargaining or a possible GTF strike.

Confused? You won’t be, after this overview of the June 20th session of GTFF Bargaining.

 

In early June, the GTFF Health and Welfare Trust, a group of 5 graduate students and a representative from the University who work together to manage graduate student health insurance, came to an agreement with their previous health insurance provider, PacificSource, on health insurance for the following year. The agreement included many welcomed improvements to GTF health insurance benefits. The new plan decreases insurance costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars for next year. These changes reduced the overall size of the financial package asked for by the GTFF by over a million and a half dollars, putting it at an estimated 2.23 million dollars over the two years of the contract. To open the bargaining session, the Administration commended the Trust on its hard work that benefited both the GTFF and the University. The savings the afforded to the University would allow the Administration to invest this money in other places of concern for GTFs. While the Administration’s newest proposals do make movement towards avoiding a GTF strike in the Fall, and the GTFF is very happy for that, the package still constitute one that the GTFF has voted 98% in favor of striking over. Let’s review the Administration’s proposals in numeric order (articles marked with * are part of the financial package and must be agreement upon as a whole).

  • Article 9: Work Agreement/Assignment – The Administration’s proposal did not change from their previous version. The Administration will allow for a pilot program for Workload Allocation Forms (these forms are an agreement between a GTF and his/her supervisor of the duties and time commitments that are expected for the GTF’s work appointment), but will not keep any record of these forms unless GTFs submit written comments to their departments.
  • Article 18: Summer Term* – This article has not been changed by either side for a few sessions (effectively being agreed to by both sides). It changes qualifications from summer tuition waivers to require GTFs only to have appointments in the year preceding a summer (rather than both sides of the summer), making receiving tuition waivers easier for GTFs, especially those who are completing their dissertations over the summer.
  • Article 21: Salary* – The Administration modified their proposal to raise GTF Level 1 minimum pay rates by 6.1% in both contract years, and raise Level 2 and Level 3 minimum pay rates by 3% over that time. This is a change from the prior proposal of 3% to all levels.
  • Article 22: Tuition Waiver* – The Administration accepted GTFF language to keep the current $61 cap on fees paid by GTFs during the academic year and institute reimbursement of SEVIS fees paid by international graduate students when applying for visas to come to the University. This is a change from the previous proposal to institute a percentage-basis for fees paid by GTFs.
  • Article 23: Health Insurance* – The Administration increased a proposed cap on University contribution to increases in health insurance premiums to 10% (and increases over 10% must be paid entirely by GTFs) and incorporated GTFF language to prevent the Trust from expanding benefits to GTFs without bargaining for them. The previous proposal did not include the GTFF language, which was offered to ease University fears of out of control insurance costs, and had a cap of 7% on premium increases.
  • Article 28: Absences* – The Administration did not change positions from their previous proposal, refusing any paid leave for GTFs due to illness, to injury, the birth or adoption of children, or for bereavement.
  • Article 31 and 33: Negotiation of Successor Agreement and Communication – The Administration reasserted language that would have the University of Oregon President be the party who ratifies the CBA on behalf of the University.

The new financial package offered by the University is an increase of around $400,000 from their previous offer, putting the size of the financial package offered by the Administration at an estimated 1.77 million dollars over the life of the contract. With an understanding of what the Administration’s proposals are and how they’ve changed from their last offers, let us review table discussion and some issues surrounding each of them (you can click on the article title above to jump right to the discussion on that topic, if you would like).

 

There was no discussion on Article 9 (workload), other than a confirmation that it had not changed from the previous bargaining session. Since it has not changed, it still does not provide a solid system for future GTFs to review and learn from the success of previous GTFs in how to manage their time commitments for an appointment. It would likely only preserve comments from GTFs who had problems with their appointments, showing GTFs ways to avoid issues, but not methods to improve the quality of their work for the University.

 

As Article 18 (summer tuition) has been effectively agreed upon by both sides, there was no discussion of it. If this were not a part of the financial package, it would have likely been TA’d (tentatively agreed – signed off by both parties for inclusion in the finalized CBA), but as it is part of the financial package, it is still technically subject to change in order to adjust costs of different aspects of the overall financial package.

 

Article 21 (salary) had more discussion than the prior two articles. The Administration framed their offer as a way to decrease the difference between different levels of GTF pay. Currently, as GTFs move from level 1 to level 2, the minimum pay increases by $179 per month, but as they move from level 2 to level 3, their pay increases by $88. The Administration’s offer to give a larger raise to level 1 GTFs would make this difference smaller, making these steps $100 and $93 by the end of the contract. This would certainly help many of those who face the toughest financial situation and makes strides towards achieving a living wage for all levels of GTFs. However, during the session caucus, many GTFs spoke out with concerns about the smaller raises at the top not helping GTFs at level 2 or 3, hired for 0.4 FTE or even as low as 0.2 FTE, who face very real financial challenges. The GTFF membership has not had an in depth discussion about differing raises to different GTFs, but we will be as bargaining continues.

Another point of discussion brought forward by former GTFF President David Craig was unclear messaging by the Administration. At previous bargaining sessions, the GTFF was told explicitly that GTF wages were never intended to cover the cost of living. However, David pointed out that their offer of 6.1% raises is suspiciously similar to the GTFFs original proposals, which were intended to get GTFs to a living wage within 3 or 4 years. David was curious if the Administration had made a change of heart or if other forces were at play. In response, and for once this is a quote, the Administration’s lead negotiator stated “having a wage that meets the cost of living in the area isn’t a bad thing. We aren’t opposed to it. But is that the guiding star that the University will always strive for? No. It’s more complicated than that. It has to do with resources and staying competitive with comparable Universities.”

There are two main problems with this statement (beyond minimizing GTFs importance not just to the University, but also as people). The first is that the University does have the resources to meet the cost of living for all GTFs. The GTFF has made this argument very clearly, while the Administration has claimed financial ruin for the University. The University of Oregon, for many years now, has continually had annual surpluses from fees and tuition that has stretched in the millions of dollars. This surplus grew by just shy of $10 million in this past academic year, and now sits at over $70 million (further discussion on these figures are available in prior bargaining updates, here). This is a large reserve of funding that the Administration could invest in GTFs, if they chose to do so. Second, having a wage that meets the cost of living is directly tied to being competitive. In AAU comparative institutions, many of them, even those in very expensive parts of the country, pay a wage that exceeds the cost of living. Our close neighbor, and direct competitor in many fields, Oregon State, pays their graduate students a wage that meets the cost of living. If a prospective graduate student has a choice between Oregon and another institution that pays enough so she will not have to take out loans just to afford groceries, it is a real possibility she may choose that other institution. GTFs and faculty know this is already happening. Directors of Graduate Studies in multiple departments have spoke at the bargaining table making exactly this point. If Oregon wants to be more competitive, paying graduate students a wage that meets the cost of living is a way to do that.

 

The GTFF was very happy to see the Administration address our issues with student fees (Article 22). A percentage basis for fees poses real risks to GTF finances, and we are excited for the stability provided with flat rates. Additionally, the GTFF is proud the Administration is willing to invest in international graduate students by reimbursing SEVIS fees they must pay to attend Oregon.

 

Health Insurance (Article 23), like wages, was another much discussed topic. The GTFF was disappointed to see a continued push for a cap on premium increases given the Trust so recently proving its ability to keep premium growth down and even save the University money. The GTFF concern is magnified when coupled with the language that prohibits expansions of benefits. The GTFF has always been, and continues to be, concerned with the risk of the slashing GTF healthcare benefits as a method to keep costs under the proposed premium cap. In response, the Administration has suggested that the trust could put benefits if they were lost previously, but the inability to expand benefits takes a big bite out their own argument. This concern is a little bit complicated; so let’s first make clear exactly what the two proposals are:

  1. The “cap” states that if insurance premiums grow by 10% (over what they were at the beginning of this past academic year), any amount over 10% must be paid for entirely by the GTFF.
  1. Any expansion in benefits (beyond what GTFs have to for next academic year) that would increase insurance premiums must be agreed to at the bargaining table.

The concern of the GTFF rests on the quick 2 year turn around for CBAs. If GTF healthcare usage is large next year – there are many GTFs who need surgery, have complicated births, are involved with serious accidents, or even just many GTFs get sick – premium rates could grow beyond the cap. In response, the trust could cut benefits from the insurance plan to keep costs down (and under the cap) for year 2. If costs decrease in year 3, the trust could put back in the benefits, but this is unlikely. It is more likely that, because the GTFF and Administration will be back at bargaining during the 2nd year, the GTFF would need to get the administration to agree to pay to put these benefits back in. If they do not, but instead keep both the cap and limit on new benefits language (updated accordingly), the benefits that the GTFF had in the past, would become “new” benefits and the Trust could not put them back. Any benefit that isn’t in the current GTF health insurance every time a new CBA rolls around, will be lost for good.

The Administration was adamant that this might not happen – if the language isn’t changed in the next CBA, you can always put back in any benefits slashed earlier. While that’s certainly true, the reality is that that just won’t happen. If benefits get cut because premiums have risen an abnormally large amount over 10%, it is unlikely the GTFF would see a decrease in such a large amount to put them back in. The Trust will be forced to slash benefits, but be unable to add new benefits. Even in years where the premium growth is very low and the Trust could add new benefits while staying under the cap, a key argument the Administration has used previously about why the cap isn’t so bad, the Trust would not have the power to do so. Coupling these two proposals would force the Trust to slash benefits in bad years, but prevent them from making any improvements in good years. This is a long-term, slow bleeding of GTF health insurance, and the bargaining team has serious reservations about agreeing to language that puts future GTFs at risk of worsening employment conditions, even if the direct risks aren’t being realized during this agreement.

 

The GTFF was disappointed to see that the Administration continued to refuse to even investigate any forms of paid leave for GTFs (Article 28), claiming that no other groups who work under 0.5FTE get paid leave, so GTFs should not either. A week of paid leave for one GTF would cost the University an estimated $150, an amount that is obscenely small compared to a 440 million dollar operating budget. Paid medical leave is extremely important for the physical and mental health of GTFs, critical to guaranteeing the health of all campus constituencies, and allows the University to provide the best educational experience to its students by allowing its teachers to work at peak health and ability. As for the importance of parental leave, I’ll leave that up to Provost Scott Coltrane, who the GTFF has been told is the Administrator making the decisions with regards to GTFF bargaining. In a December 29, 2013 article for The Atlantic (link), Provost Coltrane wrote,

Still, most men can’t afford to take more than a few days off after the birth of a new child. 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.

But even without programs as generous as those in Scandinavia, I suspect that any costs associated with taking paternal leave will be outweighed by potential gains. Men will develop better nurturing skills. Women will enjoy increased earnings, career advancement, and satisfaction. Children will benefit from having two involved caregivers. And corporations and governments, who want to see a more resilient and equal-opportunity work force, will realize it is in their best interests to help balance work and family obligations for everyone.

While this article focused on paternal leave, Dr. Coltrane’s conclusions on its importance apply to parental leave in general, which Dr. Coltrane made clear while speaking at a White House panel earlier this month (as noted by AroundtheO – link)

But Coltrane said signs of change are emerging and employers are slowly realizing that to attract the best workers they need to have more family-friendly policies, for men as well as women.

“I think the underlying message is it’s not a worker rights issue. It’s more like this is the reality of family life today, and businesses that want to be successful will develop the policies needed to allow employees to balance family and work,” he said.

The GTFF hopes Dr. Coltrane of 7 months ago, or even Dr. Coltrane of two weeks ago, will speak to the Dr. Coltrane of today and make a serious effort to find the means to provide parental leave to GTFs.

 

The last main topic of discussion (Articles 31 and 33) stretch beyond the bargaining room a little bit. The Administration has continued to push for the University President to ratify our CBA and cut the Board of Trustees out of any communications between the University and GTFF. The Administration went as far as to claim that because these topics do not relate to GTFF compensation or working conditions, they do not have to negotiate them. The GTFF is very concerned that the administration was asserting the right to make changes to our Collective Bargaining Agreement without negotiation if they are “permissive subjects of bargaining” under the law. Does the administration think they can unilaterally alter our current CBA in any other ways without negotiation? What does “permissive subjects of bargaining” mean? Well, for example, if the GTFF wanted to add new language in our CBA about let’s say access to a juggling summer camp for GTF’s pet dogs, that might be a permissive subject under the law. The Administration could then refuse to negotiate any new language going into the CBA about it and the GTFF could not force them to negotiate over it. But in this case we have the opposite. The Administration wants to negotiate and add new language to our agreement, while also declaring it a permissive subject they refuse to negotiate over. The GTFF very strongly questions the Administration’s interpretation of what declaring something a “permissive subject” of bargaining is, and how they intend to change our current collective bargaining agreement without negotiating it. The GTFF bargaining team is very curious how a mediator from the state labor board might view the Administration’s interpretation of the law

The GTFF believes the Board is the appropriate authority to ratify the CBA, as they are the public body that oversees the GTFF as public employees and they are a permanent fixture that oversees the health and strength of the University. Now, it is true that a couple of weeks ago the Board of Trustees did pass a document that gave the authority to ratify collective bargaining agreements to the President, which the Administration was quick to point out. What they glossed over, however, is 1. the Board has the power to change this at any time, 2. the Board passed this measure with explicit comment that they would like a committee to work over the summer to modify the document to take into account suggested edits including those involving who ratifies collective bargaining agreements, and 3. to be that the Board of Trustees was told in March by the Administration’s General Council Randy Gellar that the President has always ratified CBAs, a fact that is wrong historically. Unfortunately, the GTFF has had a hard time correcting this oversight before the measure was passed: the Board has never been addressed about GTFF bargaining, many of them even seemed surprised when told the GTFF held and passed a strike authorization vote, letters sent by GTF members to the board were not forwarded on to Board members, the chairman of the Board of Trustees has continually declined to put GTFF bargaining on the agenda when requested to do so. The GTFF has since supplied a letter that it hopes has reached board members about the historical context of CBA ratification (this letter is also attached) and it will continue to try to work with the board to not just get this error corrected, but also in any other ways that might improve the University of Oregon.

The GTFF also questions the usefulness of the President ratifying the collective bargaining agreement, as we have been told in the past that the President has not been to any meetings about bargaining. When asked this again during this session, the Administration’s teach confirmed that the President was playing no role in bargaining. If he has no role, why should be ratify the contract? There’s an argument to be made that the Board of Trustees has also played no role, but the Board is at least publicly accessible to interface with. The GTFF has sent members to multiple board meetings over the past few months to reach out to the Board, as all of their meetings are public. The President holds no such open meetings and has not been present any of the times the GTFF has publicly (and loudly) visited his office in Johnson Hall. Shouldn’t the body we are bargaining with have a means by which we can speak to them?

For over 30 years, the GTFF collective bargaining agreement has been ratified by the Oregon University System board. For the UO president to try to take that power away from the governing board as the University transitions to a local Board of Trustees is inappropriate. The UO president has never ratified a GTFF CBA. Among graduate employees unions across the country, there is not a single one ratified by a University President, all are ratified by boards of trustees and boards of regents. The board can easily delegate negotiation tasks to the President and administration while still retaining the final authority to ratify our CBA, as the OUS board has always done. This final authority remaining with our governing board assures that should any problems arise there is a governing board of people to oversee that those problems are resolved so they can assure the success of our university. No matter who ratifies our CBA, if negotiations are unsuccessful it will reflect on the Board of Trustees, so they should be the body that has the final say to ratify agreements. During a year in which the President’s office has overseen an attempt to eliminate our health and welfare trust, pressure GTFs to do the work of other campus workers on strike, wipe out our cap on fees, keep wages below what it costs to live in Eugene, and refuse paid leave for parents and those needing medical leave, the GTFF feels the President and his designee, the Provost, may need some oversight. The president needs to remember that he is accountable to the Board of Trustees in all things, especially those involving graduate employees at this University.

 

The economic proposals brought forth by the Administration took steps towards the GTFFs latest proposals, but still fall short in a few specific areas. These areas constitute a very tiny fraction of the overall economic proposal, so the GTFF hopes the Administration can find the means to adequately address them. The GTFF requested another session sometime in the next two weeks, where the GTFF hopes to bring modifications to Administration’s proposals that address some of our concerns. The GTFF hopes the Administration can find the will to take action to improve the working conditions of those who teach one third of the undergraduates on their campus. The progress the Administration has made in the past few weeks is appreciated by the GTFF. We see that the administration has taken our campaign for a living wage and our strike vote very seriously. We’re relieved to see that a major step forward was taken at this past bargaining session to close the gap so GTFs can afford to live and work in Eugene. We’re incredibly proud that our GTFF Health and Welfare Trust worked so hard to make sure GTFs have major dental, and increased vision coverage while also saving both GTFs and the administration a significant amount of money.

We had hoped major steps forward in bargaining could have been taken before our CBA expired, before GTFs left for the summer, and before a strike vote was held. Now, with the GTFF unable to ratify a CBA during the summer with a vast number of GTFs not employed and and not eligible to vote, we hope the Administration meets our bottom line before the new school year begins. We’d love to greet GTFs in the fall with a very solid tentative agreement to hold a full membership vote to ratify. But if we don’t have a tentative agreement, our members have set that they are prepared to strike if there’s still a cap on our health insurance that will dismantle and erode our plan over time. Our members have been quite clear that we will also strike if there is no paid leave for our peers in their most vulnerable moments with new babies or severe medical emergencies. We’re hopeful these remaining issues can be resolved and hope those that are around this summer come to our upcoming bargaining sessions. Our next session time and location will be emailed to all members. It may be summer, but we remain strong.