Salaries, healthcare and the cost of living are all at issue as the University of Oregon renegotiates its contract with the GTFF, the union which represents the university’s 1,500 graduate employees. The current contract between the two parties expires at the end of March.
The negotiations come in the midst of an increasingly challenging financial state for the university. In a report to the board of trustees last week, university administrators shared that the university’s budget shortfall is projected to increase by about $2.4 million from previous estimates.
At the same time, UO President Michael Schill announced a plan to reduce the university’s annual operating costs by $10 to 11 million, which makes up about 10 percent of the university’s annual educational expenses.
“Given that almost 80 percent of the UO’s general-education budget comprises salaries, the reality is that any cost-reduction efforts will affect jobs and people,” Schill said in an email to employees last week announcing the cuts.
The largest cost increase projected for the next year comes from employee salaries, including the renegotiated contract with GTFF.
Mike Magee, the union’s president, said he hopes the new contract will provide increases in both salaries and services for GEs, as GTFF outlined in its first proposal.
“Number one is of course is living wage. We are looking for our salaries to be commensurate with what the university itself says it costs to live in Eugene,” said Magee. “Right now, whether you’re a first-year or a seventh-year as a PhD student, your salary is well below the cost of living in Eugene.”
The university also intends to raise GE salaries, but for a slightly different reason. According to Peter Fehrs, UO’s senior labor relations coordinator, higher paychecks mean the university is able to better recruit graduate students in the future.
“Prospective grad students get a letter from us. That letter has an amount in it — that’s their salary,” Fehrs said. “And that amount is not very impressive, so when a person is making a decision about coming to grad school as a GE, and they have other offers… salary goes a long way,” Fehrs said.
The university’s plan would increase the amount GEs take home by “swapping” some of the current contract’s health insurance benefits and mandatory fee reductions with increased salaries. This swap, Fehrs says, makes the salary and benefit package more competitive when compared to similar institutions in the Association of American Universities.
Aside from recruitment benefits, Fehrs argues that increasing salaries at the expense of health insurance and other benefits has other positive impacts for current students.
“The upside for use is if we can continue to recruit and be more competitive with out peers, we can maintain the value of that degree,” Fehrs said. “I understand that for a current student, it sounds like we are only talking about recruitment, but we are talking about putting more cash in their pocket and ensuring that once they leave, their degree is still important as when they came.”
However, Magee says this is not a simple swap.
“The most charitable reading is it’s status quo, but it’s really not. In actual practice it’s a pretty dramatic rollback in benefits,” Magee said of the university’s proposal. “We would welcome new graduate employees and graduate students to the university, but not if it comes at the expense of the lived experience of our members and their health and wellbeing.”
Both Magee and Fehrs say that the two groups have been closer to agreeing when it comes to “non-economic” proposals — meaning those that don’t impact costs. Progress has been made on grievance procedures and protections against Immigration and Customs Enforcement for GEs, for example.
While the current contract expires on March 31, neither side is confident they’ll come to an agreement by then. If they don’t, the current contract will continue until they agree to a new one, either through more bargaining sessions or through a state mediation process, which Fehrs said will be the next step in the process.
“We came into this hoping to make improvements,” said Magee. “The university has made it obvious that we simply share different priorities.”