Letter to Undergraduates

The GTFF began its strike in dead week. The strike has continued into finals week. The GTFF does not want out picketing to distract you while taking exams. Information on our plans for finals week is available here.


Dear Undergraduate Student,

You may have heard that the GTFF has authorized a strike, and this may have worried you. Fear not! GEs care very much about you and your education. You invest too much time, too much energy, and too many resources to be taught by people who live below the poverty line; you deserve better than being taught by GEs who don’t have time to recuperate after illness, surgery, or the birth of a child. Our working conditions are your learning conditions! In light of the recent strike authorization vote, we would like to to take this opportunity to (1) get you up to speed on the GTFF, (2) answer some frequently asked questions, and (3) let you know what you can do to encourage the UO Administration to offer GEs a fair contract.


How can I support the GTFF during a strike?
It’s important that you understand that we did not want to go on strike. It is not be a vacation for us; it means volunteering many hours of time to organize, risking pay cuts, picketing for hours outside in the cold and rain, and–when things are resolved–working long hours to get caught up on teaching and research that matters a lot to us. All of this will take place while we continue our own work as graduate students. We hope that the UO administration will decide to do the right thing and offer an equitable contract proposal soon. In the meantime, you can help by calling or writing to President Coltrane (pres@uoregon.edu, (541) 346-3036), Provost Frances Bronet (fbronet@uoregon.edu, (541) 346-3186) and the Board of Trustees Chair, Chuck Lillis (trustees@uoregon.edu, (541) 346-3166) and telling them how important it is to you that GEs get a fair contract today. You can also encourage your parents to contact these leaders and ask that they settle on a fair contract.


Why did the GTFF strike during finals week?
Due to the shortness of a quarter, timelines imposed on unions to strike, and the GTFF’s guiding principle of democracy, the strike couldn’t have occurred earlier in the quarter.

  • At the beginning of the quarter, the GTFF had a big meeting in the first week to discuss what happened with bargaining over the summer.
  • For 2 weeks, the GTFF let its members think, hold meetings and educate themselves as to what was going on.
  • In week 4, the membership voted if they were willing to strike or not.
  • After that vote passed, there was a 30 day “cooling off” period before the GTFF could actually go on strike.
  • This timeframe resulted in the earliest that we could go on strike was Thanksgiving Day.

The GTFF would have preferred to strike earlier in the quarter, but things did not work out that way.

What is a GTF?
Graduate Teaching Fellows (GEs) are University employees pursuing Masters or Doctorate degrees. GEs are among the first point of personal contact for undergraduates and many mentor incoming students. GEs teach 1/3 of all undergraduate classes (from here):

  • 18% of all lectures
  • 82% of all labs
  • 95% of all discussion sections

23,603 undergraduates depend on 1,500 GTFs for their education at the University of Oregon.


What is the GTFF (Local 3544)?
The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) was founded in 1976 and is one of the oldest (and strongest!) graduate employee unions in the the US. A union is a collection of workers formed to protect their rights and interests. Employees who are covered by a union have contracts that are collectively bargained with their employer. That is, representatives from both the union and the employer come together and work out contract language that governs employee benefits and responsibilities of both the employees and their employer. The union also works to guarantee that the employer – for us, the University of Oregon – does not violate the contract they have agreed to with their employees (GTFs in this case).

The GTFF is a local union under the American Federation of Teachers in Oregon. Our local number is 3544. We are a union of around 1,500 graduate employees who teach, do research, and work in administrative roles every day on this campus.


What is a strike?
A strike is an organized and principled refusal to work as a protest of last resort when contract negotiations with their employers have stalled. Given the essential nature of the work, both parties often endeavor for a timely and equitable resolution.

Under Oregon law, strikes by unionized employees are legal. If GTFs go on strike, once we have settled a contract and the strike ends, we must be allowed to return to our jobs. We cannot be fired or punished by other means for participation (or non-participation) in a strike. Because of state guidelines for a strike and the timing of the academic calendar, the GTFF cannot call for a strike until after the Thanksgiving break – but hopefully we will not have to do that.


Why has the GTFF authorized a strike?
Every two years, the GTFF bargains with the UO administration for a new contract. This time around, we’ve been in contract negotiations since November 2013 (that’s right, an entire year spent by GTFs who volunteer hundreds of hours of their time in an effort to settle a fair contract), and our last contract expired in March 2014. Due to stalling and insufficient contract proposals on the part of the UO Administration, GTFs voted this term to authorize a strike if we are not offered a contract proposal that meets our needs for a fair contract. This includes:

1) Two weeks each of paid medical and parental leave:

  1. How does this affect us? GTFs at the UO have no access to paid leave after a major accident or illness, giving birth, or other serious medical emergencies or situations. Currently, GTFs go to work when sick, delay necessary surgeries, and are forced to make up work while still sick. In some cases, major illness and childbirth cause GTFs to drop out of graduate school, thereby losing their salary and health insurance when they need it most. (If you want to know more about why parental leave in particular is so important, we encourage you to read articles and books by Scott Coltrane (UO’s Interim President). As it turns out, Coltrane is one of the nation’s leading experts on the subject and even told President Obama how important parental leave is in fostering healthy, productive, and equitable workplaces! It seems he thinks all employees in America–except his own!–should have parental leave.)
  2. How does this affect you? Again, many of the UO’s competitors offer GTF packages that include paid leave. It’s not just an ethical imperative; it’s the smart thing to do to recruit the best and the brightest GTFs. More competitive GTF packages mean higher quality graduate employee researchers and instructors, all of which means a better undergraduate learning experience. More importantly, if affects you if your GTF shows up to work when sick or injured. In short, our working conditions are your learning conditions!

2) A 5.5% raise to our minimum wage, to begin to close the gap between GTF salaries and the cost of living in our community:

  1. How does this affect us? GTFs are not allowed to work more than 19.5 hour a week. Many hold positions that offer fewer hours. As we do not work 20 hours a week, we cannot qualify for many forms of government assistance. Many GTFs are more than $200 short per month in terms of covering basic living expenses (rent, transportation, and food).
  2. How does this affect you? Colleges and universities that offer higher salaries attract highly qualified graduate students and teachers, which in turn improves the quality of undergraduate education and the ranking of that college or university. Many universities that compete with UO in GTF recruitment pay significantly more; for example, OSU’s minimum salary for GTFs is 28% more than the UO’s minimum salary!


Can the University of Oregon Administration afford to pay for minimum salary increases and paid leave for GTFs?
YES! Where does your tuition go? Not to pay GTFs, not to pay adjunct professors, and not to pay the classified staff workers on campus (office staff, landscapers, and maintenance workers, to name only a few). The UO currently has a 65 million dollar budget surplus, up 11 million just from last year (information from Oregon Board of Trustees meeting in September – documents here). The difference in the raise proposals between the GTFF and the University Administration is about $220,000 total for both years of the contract. The cost to offer paid leave to GTFs is around $52,000 per year – or about $104,000 over the life of the two year contract. The total difference is then around $324,000 spread over the two years of the contract. This is less than 3% of the surplus for just the past year.

Additionally, former UO President Michael Gottfredson (before Scott Coltrane) left amid scandal and was paid $940,000 in “severance.” Last year, the UO hired an outside lawyer to act as lead negotiator during GTFF contract negotiations. To date, the UO has paid his law firm more than $125,000 (information here). This is more than twice the cost of GTF leave for just one year. But, UO administrators have admitted that not giving us paid leave isn’t about the money; they have stated publicly that it’s a matter of “principle.” We have principles too, one of which is that graduate employees deserve to earn a living wage and paid leave.


If President Coltrane doesn’t care, then why isn’t the Board of Trustees working harder to settle GTFF contract negotiations?
There are a few members of the Board of Trustees (BOT) who have spoken in support of the GTFF, but they are greatly outnumbered by those who do not. BOT Chair Chuck Lillis does not think that living below the poverty line is a problem for GTFs. At a public session, Lillis stated that when he was a GTF in 1972 he made only $330 per month, and that it was part of the grad school experience. We did some calculations, and it turns out that he made the equivalent of $1850 (in today’s economy), which is much higher than the minimum salary GTFs seek. However, the BOT is brand new, so we are hopeful that there’s still time for them to take action to improve this campus.


My GTF told me how much money s/he makes and it doesn’t sound that bad; what’s up?
All departments, in theory, can choose to pay their GTFs above the minimum salary. This is great and of course supported by the GTFF. However, many departments simply cannot afford to pay above the minimum set by the GTFF contract. In fact, 56% of GTFs earn below the cost of living in Eugene. We are fighting for a pay raise for GTFs who earn the minimum. According to the UO’s own Financial Aid Office estimations, this minimum falls below the cost of living in Eugene.


Who supports the GTFF?
The Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), SEIU (the classified staff employee union on campus), and United Academics (the professors’ union) have all written letters in public support of the GTFF and our “Bottom Line”. You can read all of their letters of support here https://gtff3544.net/2014-bargaining-letters-of-support/. Your very own ASUO has also taken a strong stance in supporting the GTFF; you can read about it here: https://gtff3544.net/gtff-support-from-asuo/. Furthermore, we have the full support of our affiliates, American Federation of Teachers-Oregon and AFL-CIO. Finally, the GTFF is in contact with many other unionized workers (including construction workers and delivery workers) who have serious concerns about crossing our picket lines during a strike.


What will happen on campus if GTFs go on strike?
In all likelihood, it will be like getting one or two snow days. Academic strikes rarely last very long because what we do as GTFs is essential on a daily basis. If a strike occurs, undergraduate classes may be canceled, and GTFs may choose not to engage in any work-related responsibilities. If you support our right to an equitable contract and fair working conditions, you can choose to join us on the picket lines and learn about democratic organizing and collective action first hand! You can attend a rally or walk a picket line during your free time; it is covered by your right to freedom of speech and expression, and you cannot be punished for participating in legal pickets and rallies. Faculty members might choose to support us as well, but some may choose to cover our classes instead. When a person does the work of another union employee on strike, that person is called a “scab” and could cause the strike to go on longer. We want a fair contract as soon as possible so that we can get back to doing the work we love, and finish up this term!


What will happen with my final exams and final grade for fall term?
More than anyone else on campus, GTFs care about finishing up exams and grading for fall term. Until a fair contract is reached, the Administration cannot guarantee that exams and final grades will be provided for all students. The GTFF is highly concerned that the Administration may be compromising the quality of education provided to undergraduates, in an attempt to stop GTFs from having paid leave. At the end of a strike, the terms of returning to work will be negotiated, including finishing up grading. The GTFF is committed to negotiating a fair contract as soon as possible, to get GTFs back to work, to finish up the fall term properly, with fair grades provided to all undergraduates.


How can I use social media to help?
The GTFF has only one paid staff member and everyone else (including officers) are GTFs who volunteer their time. Unlike the UO Administration, we don’t have the money to hire an external legal team or PR specialists; in light of this, social media is very important to our efforts. You can “like” the GTFF Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/GTFF3544) and follow us on Twitter @GTFF_3544 for the latest updates and information on campus actions. Sharing and liking our Facebook posts, using our hashtags, and tweeting and retweeting our tweets will help greatly in our efforts. You can also tweet at @Univ_Of_Oregon to ask them to settle the contract and avoid a strike.


Who can I talk to if I have more questions, or if I’d like to support the GTFF?
Undergrads from across campus are organizing their support through the Student Labor Action Project, and you can join with them by emailing: uoslap@gmail.com. You can also contact Teri Del Rosso (the GTFF media guru) if you are interested in being part of our media team at (teridelrosso@gmail.com) or Erin Moberg (VP of Political Education) if you want to become involved politically (political.education@gtff.net). To submit your thoughts about the potential strike to our newsletter The Agitator, contact Richard Wagner (VP of Communications) at member.communications@gtff.net. The GTFF website (www.gtff3544.net) also contains the full history of bargaining, links to media coverage, contact information for all GTFF officers, and a lot of other useful information. If you’d like to speak to someone in person, stop by the GTFF Office (on 13th near campus, above Noodle Head) on weekdays from 9am-4pm. We’d love to hear from you!

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