May 22, 2014
Statement from the GTFF President:
After more than eight long months of bargaining, last Friday the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) held an emergency General Membership Meeting lasting more than four hours to discuss holding a strike authorization vote. Out of great concern, the gathered membership overwhelming voted to proceed with a strike authorization vote this week with only a few weeks left in the school year.
As a result, graduate teaching fellows (GTFs) have been pouring into the GTFF office and polling locations all week to vote on a strike authorization in unprecedented numbers, a step that has not occurred since the founding of the GTFF nearly 40 years ago. The GTFF elections committee reports tonight that 98% of GTFs voted to authorize a strike. The strike vote has been authorized with more than double the necessary quorum required. With an overwhelming number of people willing to shut down the University of Oregon campus in the coming months if our basic bottom lines are not met, it is with grave concern that I go to the University Administration tomorrow to ask that a fair contract be agreed to now.
GTFs do not want to strike, but without a more serious effort on the part of the University of Oregon Administration to improve the dire financial situation of our lowest paid members; it is a step the membership is reluctantly but overwhelming willing to demonstrate how seriously we view helping our fellow GTFs. Our members were incredibly disappointed when the university’s bargaining team walked out of bargaining last week, refusing to discuss further any financial proposals, without “more information” from the GTFF Health and Welfare Trust, a body of 5 GTFs and a University representative who manage the health insurance plan for graduate teaching fellows. The University’s Trust representative, serves as an Associate Dean of Finance and Administration, and is also a member of the Administration’s bargaining team. This means that the Administration does have direct access to any and all of the information known by the Trust. And our GTF members of the Trust report that more than enough information is available for the Administration to reach a fair contract now.
So, the question remains, what is the Administration waiting for?
While we strongly believe in good faith bargaining, an effort to delay bargaining to the summer is unacceptable. GTFF bylaws stipulate its membership can only ratify a new collective bargaining agreement during the academic year. Our membership will not allow concessions and backroom deals to be made while they are gone for the summer, as a democratic union we demand the administration bargain while our members can take part in this critical process. Without rapid progress in the next few weeks, GTFs will return in the Fall without a ratified contract and are prepared to go on strike. The incoming Board of Trustees already has a very full plate, adding more to it by forcing them to also manage a group of 1500 extremely frustrated employees is an unlikely position they would like to be in. It is unclear to the GTFF why the current University Administration would place this burden on our brand new Board of Trustees. The GTFF is very hopeful to partner with the new Board of Trustees in future years to improve the ranking of its graduate programs.
The GTFF has made many sacrifices during times of difficult budget years, giving up free health insurance, accepting low wages, increases to class size and workload. We shouldered those costs and continue to manage that burden. We are amenable to working with the Administration when they are facing a difficult financial road ahead. But that simply isn’t the case. Last week, the UOS reported that the University expects a nearly ten million dollar profit from fee and tuition funds from this fiscal year alone. The coming state buy-down of tuition is not going to harm this funding stream as the buy-down explicitly supplants tuition increases with state funding despite the administration leaving that piece of information out of recent press releases. The University is in a good financial position to improve GTF working conditions on campus and living conditions off campus. Paying our GTFs a fair wage allows the university to recruit and retain the most talented and skilled young minds, while boosting the ratings of our graduate program on an international level. To try to accumulate money and not work towards that goal is unacceptable to our membership, and if the administration won’t fight to save the quality of our graduate programs, we will.
The GTFF membership has reiterated time after time that they want a contract that closes a preexisting gap between the cost of living and wages afforded to the lowest paid GTFs. The Administration’s offer of wage increases that barely surpass inflation and raising GTF expenses in other areas, like student fees and health care does not accomplish this. Adding insult to injury, the Administration has notified our GTFs in grad housing that they’ll all be getting a $25 increase per month to rent next year, immediately taking back more than half of the wage increase they have proposed. Additionally shifting a bulk of risk for increases in healthcare premiums and student fees onto graduate students in an effort to save the University money is unacceptable. The university’s current proposal of a premium cap could potentially result in our members premiums increasing 200-300% in the next two years, or face dramatic cuts to their benefits. Many of us already cannot afford basic living costs, a contract that further burdens us such as the one put forward by the Administration is not a contract GTFs can live under.
But this struggle is not just about us. The GTFF remains committed to improving the quality of undergraduate education. The Administration must help find better ways to manage GTF workload so that the quality of undergraduate education is not compromised. Forcing a GTF to continue to teach classes while ill or injured because they have no form of paid leave harms both the GTF’s well being and the educational experience being offered to their students. Our working conditions are their learning conditions. When students pay ever increasing amounts of tuition they do not expect to have their courses taught by people who are underpaid and overworked. We are encouraged by the City of Eugene in possibly making paid sick leave an expectation, rather than an exception for workers. We hope the University of Oregon can see this vital need as well.
Even more troubling, are parents who have no paid leave for the birth of their children. GTFs should not have to go back to work just days after giving birth or when helping their partners who have just brought a new child into their families. The Administration agreeing merely to meet what is required by federal law to allow GTFs to take unpaid leave at this most vulnerable time in their academic careers is simply unacceptable. To go without pay, with the costs of a newborn joining your household is simply not possible. Graduate School should be accessible to the best and brightest, including parents. We await the administration to join us in making this campus fully accessible to parents pursuing academic careers.
Too many of us are overworked, underpaid, and going further into debt while teaching more than 1/3 of all the classes at the University. A fair contract is not only good for the university, but it is the right thing to do. GTFs do not want to walk away from their jobs for any length of time and they will demonstrate that commitment to their work directly to the Administration with a work-in tomorrow Friday 10am-1pm, May 23rd, at Johnson Hall on the UO campus. At our administration building, GTFs will be doing the vital work that keeps this University functioning. Our work is incredibly valuable, and we take great pride in the teaching and research duties we carry out for this campus. We love our work, and we intend to show that tomorrow. The GTFF will follow the work-in with a rally outside of Johnson Hall at 1pm, letting the Administration know we are willing put aside our work duties in order to improve the lives of our fellow graduate employees and improve the quality of undergraduate education at this campus. We are excited to have undergrads, faculty, staff, fellow grads from Oregon State and community members joining us to speak out in support of a fair contract for GTFs.
I hope to see many of you join us at our rally tomorrow, Friday at 1pm, so the Administration can see they aren’t just standing against a fair contract for graduate teaching fellows, but the entire campus community. My bargaining team awaits proposals from the administration to reach a fair contract before the end of the school year.
University of Oregon