In the fall of 1975, graduate employees (GEs) began a union organizing drive and, in December of that year, filed for a recognition election with the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB). In March of 1976, the GE organizing effort formally affiliated itself with the American Federation of teachers (AFT). The university fought this effort, claiming that GEs were primarily students rather than employees. However, the ERB eventually rejected the university’s arguments and ruled in favor of the right of graduate student employees to organize a union.
After the successful April 1977 recognition election, the GTFF set out to bargain its first contract with the university. However, progress was slow, and the services of a state-appointed mediator were necessary to resolve disagreements over the format and ground for negotiations. Substantive negotiations began in the fall of 1977, but lack of progress led the GTFF to declare the negotiations to be at an impasse in the spring of 1978. Over the next few months another mediator and a state-appointed fact finder were called in, but agreement on a contract could still not be reached. It was not until two strike votes were taken by the union in October 1978 that agreement on a contract was finally reached.
Article 2 of the contract states “Pursuant to the certification by the ERB dated May 5, 1977, the University recognizes the sole and exclusive representative for all Graduate Teaching Fellows (now known as Graduate Employees) as defined by the certification or as may hereafter be redefined by the ERB, except those employees excluded by law.”
The GTFF’s first contract with the university established many important gains, including a 14% wage increase, standardized workloads, written criteria for appointment/reappointment, and a grievance procedure. In subsequent years, language was added to the contract clarifying work assignments and discharge and layoff procedures. The GTFF made history again when they won employer-paid health insurance for GEs in 1993.
In recent years, the GTFF has undergone revitalization with increased emphasis on organizing and democratic participation by members of the union. New committees are now looking at health and safety issues, the needs of GEs with children, and the unique concerns of international GEs. In 2014, these renewed foci led the GTFF to bargain for paid medical and parental leave and cost of living adjustments (COLA). After a hard-fought battle at the bargaining table, and a historic 8-day strike, the GTFF was successful in securing 10% increases to the minimum pay that a GE can receive. The union was also able to ensure that a Graduate Student Assistance Fund would be put into place by the University of Oregon; this fund gives all graduate students at the University of Oregon the ability to apply for up to a $1000 award in the event of a medical emergency and up to $1500 award if a new child is added to the graduate student’s family.
As the GTFF enters its 47th year of service and advocacy for GEs, its members hope to continue to the creation of a campus that is safe, equitable and accessible for all.