Bargaining Update – March 19, 2014

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The University of Oregon Administration and GTFF had another bargaining session on Friday, March 14th. Following is a description of that session. The next session is Friday, March 21 at 3:30pm in Gerlinger 302.

GTFF Bargaining Summary and Look Ahead – March 19th, 2014 

As we find ourselves nearing the expiration of our collective bargaining agreement, bargaining continues to slowly progress towards completion as 3 more articles were TA’d (tentatively agreed) at the most recent bargaining session on Friday, March 14th. Unfortunately, there are major disagreements still to be worked out as healthcare, paid leave, wages and who we are actually bargaining with continue to be contentious issues at the bargaining table. As the GTFF has done before, the bargaining team brought a few wonderful speakers to the table to share their beliefs and stories with the administration’s bargaining team. Let’s cover the good before we delve into the more complicated.

TA’d Articles

Three articles were TA’d, with the GTFF accepting the administration’s language on articles 13, 16, and a new appendix. Article 13 deals with the grievance process GTFs go through if they feel their collective bargaining agreement has been violated. The GTFF wished to include some small changes to administration proposals to guarantee that even accidental or unintentional violations were still violations. The administration accepted our language of “included but not limited to” after a very quick caucus. Article 16 deals with discipline and discharge. Originally, the administration wished to have a process in place to fire GTFs who have appeared to have abandoned their jobs and with whom the administration cannot get in contact. The GTFF asked that Administration ask the GTFF for help before completing the firing procedure and that the administration expand their efforts to contact the missing GTF to include other methods (for example, attempting to use non-university email addresses that their supervisors may have used to contact them about work duties in the past). The administration incorporated these suggestions and the two sides were able to TA the changes. The new appendix that was TA’d grants the administration the ability to perform criminal background checks on GTFs. It turns out that under current University policy, current laws that govern the Oregon University System, and general Oregon state laws overseeing public employees, the administration already has this ability. The language we agreed to is virtually identical with the language in the collective bargaining agreement of the faculty union—United Academics. The bargaining team is not worried about granting the administration unprecedented power, as all this appendix does is make explicit abilities already held by the administration. In fact, having this spelled out in the contract is a plus, as the GTFF could then grieve if the procedure were not followed fairly and transparently. The bargaining team is happy to be making progress in these areas, and hopes that more articles will become TA’d soon.

Another new appendix authorizing the administration to perform drug testing in certain instances (another action they already have the ability to do through both University policy and law), is close to being TA’d. The GTFF is prepared to accept most of the administration’s proposal, though they attempted to specify both who can initiate testing (limiting it to department heads, the dean of the graduate school, and deans of hiring units) and where GTFs can receive substance abuse issues counseling (using the same program UA and SEIU members can use rather than the administration’s language for GTFs to use the health center). We hope these simple changes are agreeable to the administration. Appendix I, which deals with late pay, is also hopefully close to being TA’d. The administration had previously accepted the GTFF’s proposal to extend late pay protections to all quarters rather than just the fall quarter. The GTFF proposed one final change to rename the current loan that GTFs can receive to manage late pay to deemphasize that is a “loan” but rather just a fund to help GTFs deal with delayed paychecks. The administration seemed to understand and sympathize with our concern, but stated that they needed to first check with the financial aid office as the current name reflects the donor behind the fund—a fact the administration would like be reflected in the name. We hope to come to an agreement on this issue, which concerns a symbolic change to the collective bargaining agreement to reflect our unhappiness that GTFs would be required to take out loans to supplement their salaries in the first place—whether in response to late paychecks or otherwise.

Guest Speakers

The GTFF brought 3 speakers to the bargaining table at this bargaining session. A GTF, Eva Hoffmann, shared her troubling story of being hit by a car during the autumn quarter. Her doctor recommended she take two weeks off of work to heal. However, without any medical leave, she was forced to return to work after just one week Moreover, the week off she was able to take was due to her fellow GTFs being willing to cover her teaching responsibilities without any compensation. When the GTFF originally offered its proposal for 6 weeks of medical leave per calendar year, the administration responded by acknowledging that a formal system to cover the work loads of sick and injured GTFs would be valuable. We are happy that the administration agrees with the GTF in this instance, though the bargaining team remains frustrated that the administration does not understand that it is not a tenable solution for GTFs to simply trade hours amongst themselves. Eva and many GTFs already have a lot on their plates and the 10 week appointment times can often not leave time for GTFs to make up work for other GTFs who covered their teaching responsibilities. For GTFs like Eva, trying to make up lost hours immediately after having taken time off due to illness or injury is a huge burden that nobody should have to bear.

The GTFF was also joined at the bargaining table by two faculty members: Julie Hessler, Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of History, and Scott Pratt, Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Philosophy. Both spoke to the vital need to more adequately compensate GTFs for their work in order to attract the best and brightest to the University of Oregon. Dr. Hessler stated that some departments, such as History, have acknowledged this need and are luckily in the position to pay their GTFs above the minimumsset by our collective bargaining agreement, but that others departments (especially smaller departments) are not in the financial position to do so. Raising the minimum wage will help these departments compete for graduate students with other Universities that have a lower academic stature but are willing to pay their GTFs a living wage. Dr. Hessler was also disappointed to learn that many GTFs take out loans just for living expenses in order to make it through graduate school, and that many departments that rely heavily on international graduate students cannot afford to pay much above the minimum wage. International students cannot take out student loans, which often drives them away from the University of Oregon. Without a living wage, these departments cannot attract the students they need.

Dr. Pratt laid out both moral and institutional arguments for vastly increasing GTF minimum wages. Dr. Pratt agreed with Dr. Hessler that underpaying graduate students drives many excellent potential graduate students away from the University of Oregon. When current graduate students meet with prospective graduate students, we want them to be honest and, unfortunatel,y that often results in those prospective students attending other institutions where they can afford to live while in graduate school. The University of Oregon wants to attract the best and brightest to their graduate programs and offering a competitive and living wage is a central means to do so. Even more moving than Dr. Pratt’s institutional argument, though, was his moral argument. If the administration is truly committed to making the University of Oregon a strong academic institution and having a pool of successful graduate students, it is wrong to treat graduate students so poorly. Not providing graduate students the financial means to simply get by in Eugene is neither conducive to graduate students’ work, nor does it reflect the stated values and mission of the University. Tuition waivers are great and necessary, but they aren’t a means for GTFs to pay their rent or buy groceries. Dr. Pratt explicitly placed responsibility at the feet of the administration’s bargaining team to convince those above them of the urgent importance to fairly and rightly compensate graduate student workers.

While it is not reflected in my mediocre writing here, Dr. Hessler and Dr. Pratts testimonies were beautifully worded and argued. The mass of GTFs in attendance erupted into extended applause after finally hearing persons in positions of authority at the University acknowledge all we do for the University and actually have an interest in supporting us. The administration has stated that they recognize all we do, but their rhetoric largely treats us just a numbers they have to push around on paper. For once during bargaining, GTFs could feel that someone respects and cares about them. We cannot thank Drs. Hessler and Pratt enough not only for speaking on our behalf, but also for acknowledging and respecting us as fellow human beings.

Contention

There were two points of serious contention during the bargaining session. After the GTFF’s bargaining team ran through their counterproposals for this session, the GTFF turned the floor over to the administration to answer financial questions they agreed to inquire after during the previous bargaining session. The administration’s response was to refuse to answer the questions. They decided it was not “appropriate” to discuss the University’s finances in a larger context. They will not explain why the president’s office doubled their spending on general council in the past year, spending nearly $3 million dollars during this academic year. They will not tell us how the Jaqua Center’s upkeep is paid. They claim that because the GTFF cannot bargain these expenses, discussing those things at the bargaining table is inappropriate. The administration views only the financial figures they share to be appropriate but these show a very narrow representation of the University’s finances and are actively skewed to make it appear that the University is in financial distress by ignoring large portions of its budgets and focusing just on incremental changes from the previous academic year. The University is not struggling financially. It has more than enough money for the administration to more fairly compensate its graduate students, if that was a priority of the administration. And that is exactly why we want to discuss the University’s finances. How the administration chooses to spend its money is a direct reflection of its priorities. The bargaining session does not exist in a vacuum; there is a context in which it occurs. To understand that context, we need to know the priorities of the administration. Ignoring this context will not allow bargaining to be successful for either side. It is frustrating to see the administration neither prioritizing GTFs, nor explaining where their priorities are where they are.

The other heated point during the session was a debate about whom the GTF is in fact bargaining with. The administration had previous listed the University President as the sole person who will ratify the GTF contract and with whom the GTF should communicate. During the last bargaining session, the GTFF stated that they felt that new board of trustees should fill those roles, as they oversee the president and both the prior contract and all other graduate student contracts lists the board of trustees as the body bargaining with the union. As a compromise, the administration suggested listing the “appropriate authority” as the ratifying body and contact point. At the table, the GTFF declined this language and instead pushed for the board of trustees. The administration’s lead negotiator got hot and claimed that the GTFF had no right to say who in the University would ratify the agreement. But, of course, every word in the contract is open to negotiation and the GTFF is negotiating with someone. We want to make sure those at the top of the chain of command are aware of what is happening below them. Since the last session, the bargaining team contacted a member of that board and was told that they did not, in fact, know that the administration was not intending to get their input on the new collective bargaining agreement. We hope to bring this point to their attention during the board of trustees public meetings on March 27th and 28th, and hopefully the administration will feel differently about who are bargaining with soon.

Final Word

At the end of the month, the GTFF collective bargaining agreement will expire. Progress is being made in finalizing a new version, but there is much work to do. The GTFF must continue to demonstrate to the administration both the centrality of GTF work at the University and the fact that the GTFF bargaining team has the support of our members. To those ends, Friday was a success! Turn out at the afternoon work- in event was very high. A very large turn out to bargaining was a delightful surprise as GTFs filled the room to nearly capacity at a time in the quarter when GTFs are extremely busy. Thank you to all those who came out! The administration’s burgeoning aggression at the bargaining table is a reflection of their worry at the strength of the GTFF’s membership. It shows that we are succeeding. Let’s continue to turn out and encourage our colleagues to join us so that the GTFF can achieve its goals at the bargaining table!