Fighting Back for a Safer University for All

GTFF logo with text reading

Dear Fellow Graduate Employees,

It has been a difficult few days for GEs in all areas of campus work–instruction, research, and admin–as we have been dealing with the incredibly complex and convoluted new Winter Term Update policies put out by the Provost’s Office this week. With COVID-19 at UO skyrocketing to over twenty-seven times more new cases in our community this week (without complete Friday-Sunday data) than there were during the entire finals week, this policy is not only irresponsible, but dangerous. This unsafe policy does not even come close to the reasonable safety requests we made to UO on Wednesday. We want to give you an update both on what your Union is doing to fight for better working conditions, and what you can do as an individual to make sure you are safe and healthy in your workspace–something you deserve as a member of this bargaining unit. We support GEs requesting remote work for their health and safety.

First, we know that individual GEs are dealing with unsafe workspaces, positive COVID cases, medical risks, and a general lack of support from the University in regards to our working conditions. Because of this, we wanted to give you information on your legal health and safety rights as a member of this bargaining unit, and how you can move your courses online in a timely manner. Please check our website for more detailed information on these rights. We encourage members to exercise these rights, including the right to refuse in an unsafe work environment, immediately if applicable. This is not boilerplate legalese; these are rights we won in our early years as a union that the University hopes we will not utilize. If there was ever a time for many GEs to be exercising these rights, it is now.

Furthermore, the GTFF will be filing an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) with the Oregon Employee Relations Board (ERB) because of the contract violations that we see in this new policy. Our contract stipulates that any changes in the working conditions of GEs has to be negotiated through bargaining. By making GEs keep track of the 20% threshold of COVID-related absences and making GEs record their classes, the University is making direct changes to our working conditions without our consent through bargaining. Filing a ULP is a legal right we have as a labor union and grants protections over and above our Collective Bargaining Agreement for workers in the case of a credible ULP (e.g., opening negotiations and additional retaliation prevention). The ERB will determine the validity of our complaint and potentially show that the University is violating Oregon labor law. The ULP shows the University that we are serious about contesting this policy, and are willing to do so in a way that takes state labor law into account.

The University’s policy of the 20% threshold, the recording of classes, and Department Head agreement in order to move classes online is likely not enforceable from our point of view. The University has no ability to keep track of the attendance of all 4,000 classes on campus, or to make sure everyone is recording classes. We have put together a simple email outline that you can send to your Department Head requesting a switch to remote instruction. At the end of the day, the GE instructors of record and discussion leaders are the ones with the information about absences, so GEs should feel empowered to make requests as you see fit.  It appears that the University only wants you to take these steps as a formality. We encourage you to immediately let your students know that you have requested remote teaching for everyone’s safety, rather than waiting for a supervisor to respond. 

The University’s policy is not about health and safety; it is a limited, dubious response to the current high levels of student absences in  in-person classes. This policy circumvents the University’s responsibility in causing the current surge in cases instead of providing adequate preventative measures for students living on and off campus, delaying the start of term to not coincide with COVID surges after the holidays, etc. In this policy the University demonstrates that UO does not care about the health and safety of its workers and students.

Let us be clear: maximally moving the University’s instructional services to remote operations—while providing N95/KN95/KF94 masks and other precautions for remaining in-person workers and students—to wait out and hamper this current surge would be the most prudent and responsible course for the UO to take. UO clearly will not take this on, and given the health and safety risks of this policy we believe that all instructional GEs should request remote teaching.

We know our desire for a UO with safer, legal policies has support at the University, state, and national level. UO’s student government, the ASUO, issued a formal statement saying they stand with us and support our efforts. The Daily Emerald and Oregon Public Broadcasting already ran stories on our earlier statement. Students, GEs, and faculty have widely echoed our concerns on social media and by email, as the effects of these policies become increasingly apparent and urgent. Liz Shuler, the president of the AFL-CIO (the largest federation of unions in the United States) also publicly endorsed our efforts, calling on management to honor our request for temporary remote work until conditions are safe. We have been in conversation with fellow graduate unions across the country facing similar problems as they return to campus later in January, and we know our fight in the coming weeks will be watched closely as the nation grapples with employers’ similarly unsafe and unfair practices. In short, the student movement and the labor movement are standing with us.

We are fighting against the administration’s policies that go against our contract and make our workplaces and communities unsafe by fueling the rapid spread of COVID-19. With the solidarity of workers and students throughout UO and across the US, and through our own collective power as unionized workers fighting, we will win this fight together.

If you have concerns or questions regarding this policy, needing advice on your next steps, etc., reach out to any GTFF leader—your department’s stewards, any of the caucus chairs, and any of us Executive Board members. We’re all here for you.

In solidarity, 

Mel Keller, GTFF President

Tali Bitton, VP for Organizing 

Cy Abbott, VP for Grievances

Adam Quinn, VP for Member Communications