The GTFF’s bargaining team met with the University of Oregon’s team for their third bargaining session on January 17th. What follows is a review of that session by the bargaining team.
GTFF Bargaining Update and Look Ahead – January 22nd, 2014
Written by the GTFF Bargaining Committee
If there are two alliterative messages to take away from last weeks bargaining session they are “consistency across campus” and “power of the people”. A third, non-alliterative but still important, take away message is one of “vagueness and interpretation”.
Consistency Across Campus
Both the University and the GTFF stated they have goals of having consistent practices across the various employees of the university. In that regard, the University has decide they would like the power to background check potential graduate students and perform drug and alcohol tests on graduate students suspected of being under the influence while performing work duties. Both of these are part of university code already, they would just like to formalize the procedures in our contract.
There are a couple of flaws with their proposals. The University specifically asks for permission to collect fingerprints of graduate students if needed, which is specifically not required in the current university policy, nor is it in the CBAs of all the other campus unions. Additionally, the university does not know how the testing would be implemented. They suggested possibly that university police could breathalyze or the health center could perform drug tests but there is no system currently set up to handle drug testing of employees by the university. There is also currently no funding designated to do drug testing (although, the university admits they can earmark funding for anything they really want). Third, the University’s language related to the triggering of a test (the University’s coming to suspect that a GTF is under the influence while performing work duties), while sounding reasonable enough, raises some practical concerns. It appears that the university is willing to allow anyone to claim that a GTF was under the influence of drugs, including undergraduate students. It is unclear how the University could ensure that those making such a claim against a GTF would have the experience or training necessary to assess whether their observations were “objective, reasonable, and articulate.” Next, there may be confusion over what types of drugs would be prohibited (illegal vs. legal/prescribed), as well as how the policy could be adjusted in the event of legalization of currently illegal drugs. It appears possible that legal, medically required, and prescribed medications that alter one’s ability to function coherently would be prohibited this policy, though it remains unclear.
The GTFF strongly conveyed its interest in having consistent policies across campus as regards parental and sick leave. GTFs currently do not have any sick leave. If you get sick, it is unclear how GTFs can have their duties covered in a consistent way, and many GTFs report feeling pressured to report to work while sick. This is not how the faculty and staff at the University are treated. If they are ill, there are formal procedures in place to fill their duties while they rest and heal at home, without putting the health of those faculty, staff, students, and GTFs who are on campus at risk. Similarly, GTFs who have recently acquired a child have no type of parental leave to deal with the major life adjustment they are living with. They are required to simply power through it and hope that an entirely unpredictable situation works our perfectly, take a reduced FTE to decrease their time commitment to the university, or drop out all together. These last two options are major financial burdens to GTFs and all three disproportionately affect female GTFs. No other university employee is asked to quit their job in order to start or expand a family. If the university is seriously committed to applying fair and consistent practices to all employees, they must grant GTFs these rights.
Giving GTFs a Voice at the Table
If there was any doubt about the impact that a strong union with the support of its members can have, this was completely dissipated at the bargaining session. For the first time in this bargaining cycle, we had graduate student members speak to how the University’s current policies that we seek to change affect their lives as graduate students. In a beautifully written statement, Jeni Rinner shared her story of having a child while being a graduate student. Not only did she share her personal story; she did a fantastic job laying out all the possibilities and implications of being a GTF who is about to have a new child join their family. We also heard fantastic testimony from two GTFs in the music department, Krista Abrahamson and Meghan Naxer, who shared the importance of internet access to their GTF duties. Their statements were vital in helping the University understand that our bargaining position asked not for campus-wide wireless, but for easy access in locations where GTFs perform work duties or an adjustment to GTF duties to avoid required internet access if it is feasible. The help and input of these three GTFs greatly helped the University understand and sympathize with our positions, a fact noted by the University bargaining team themselves.
As with the other sessions, the bargaining committee is very happy with the overall member turn out at this session. We consistently had around 50 GTFs in the room with us, letting the university know that many of us care about our rights. With the flux of GTFs in and out of the session as their schedules required, we probably had in the range of 70 or 80 different graduate students attend the session, a wonderful number that we’d love to see even higher in the future. In addition to the GTFs in attendance, we had members of the general public, as well as friends from both SEIU and UA (the other unions on campus) and SLAP (Student Labor Action Project) at bargaining. Having the support of the other labor organizations across campus thrills us and will be crucial to reaching our goals for bargaining.
Just as the other unions support us, we must also stand by our allies in any of their future struggles. In a move to attempt to drive a wedge between the unions, the university requested the power to ask GTFs to perform the duties of other striking workers on campus. The bargaining team does not see this as an acceptable request. Beyond attempting to erode the support between unions and mitigate the power wielded by striking workers, a GTF being asked to perform the duties of striking workers will create an uncomfortable atmosphere between GTFs and their supervisors. On one hand, the GTF may personally support the wishes of the striking workers and recognize the rights they have to voice that support by refusing the work, but on the other hand they might fear turning down requests from their supervisor. It can also create uncomfortable relationships between GTFs who are unwilling to fulfill these requests by their supervisor and GTFs who are willing to perform the duties of the striking workers. We must continue to stand by our fellow unions by continuing to refuse to perform any work that is done by striking workers—to ensure that all campus workers deserve fair wages and working conditions.
Vagueness and Interpretation
As discussed previously, many of the University proposals were vague and left room for interpretation by future employees and members of the University community. The GTFF bargaining team raised questions and concerns about possible loopholes in the University’s proposals, and were met with “hopes” that future administrators wouldn’t allow for these abuses of power, but would understand the original intent of the proposals. The bargaining team finds this stance unacceptable. As a legal document, it is important for the CBA to contain clear and concise language for all articles. Having vague language leaves room for, at worse, abuse of power by the University or, at best, confused and unclear outcomes for GTFs. It is in both parties’ interest to have clear, explicit language in the CBA.
In addition to admitted unclear procedures for drug testing and enforcement, the University proposed alterations to disciplinary structure for graduate students who grossly violate University (or legal) policies. These changes, while perhaps ultimately beneficial, are presented in overly vague language, giving the University too much power in disciplining graduate students. The debate that evolved centered on the time frame between suspending a GTF who has been accused of a fireable offense and ultimately letting the GTF go. The University’s language did not make explicit any differences between being accused of an offense and having it demonstrated that the offense occurred. The bargaining team was fearful that the University’s language allowed for a GTF to be fired at just the accusation of a violation of University policy, without sufficient investigation of the alleged violation. Ultimately the University recognized the vagueness of their language and agreed to restructure portions of their proposal to make their intentions with the proposal more explicit. Agreements like these between the union and University give the bargaining team hope that progress can be made in our discussions with the University.
As a whole, the bargaining team feels encouraged by the discussion that took place. The university and GTF agree to similar goals in matching GTF and other employee benefits and rules. The support of our members and the larger labor climate on campus gives us strength to fight for our priorities and confidence to demonstrate to the University that our requests have merit and fill the needs of GTFs. However, there is still work to be done. We are concerned about the language and implementation of University proposals. Accepting language that allows for future abuses of power or language that does not come with a designed structure for implementation is dangerous and not a position we are willing to put ourselves in. Let’s continue to fight together to protect our rights!
The GTFF is optimistic about the ability of its and the University’s bargaining team to reach agreement on the proposals currently on the table, including the University’s proposals regarding drug testing and criminal background checks. With luck, all differences of opinion can be sorted out—leaving more time and energy to, in the coming weeks, treat the highest bargaining priorities set by the GTFF membership in the fall: a raise to the minimum wage, major dental coverage, parental leave, summer tuition wavers for all, the elimination of fees, and an increase to our vision benefit. We are anxious to hear the University’s first full responses to our wage and health care proposals this Friday, January 24th (3:30pm-6:00pm, EMU Ben Linder Room). The University has already stated that they do not believe GTFs deserve their wages to meet the cost of living established by the University’s own financial aid office. We are curious to see on Friday what they think we do deserve…
We look forward to seeing you there!