Register-Guard: “Graduate employees turn to mediator for contract negotiations with UO”

The University of Oregon and the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation did not reach an agreement on the federation’s new contract after a tense negotiation session Friday.

Federation leaders said the UO’s newest counteroffer still included a cut to the union’s healthcare coverage, but university officials held firm Monday that the offer still includes a salary raise. Now, the two parties will turn to a mediator for future negotiations.

“GTFF remains committed to bargaining in good faith,” the federation’s president Mike Magee said Friday. “We didn’t want to have to go to mediation — we wanted to be able to bargain with them at the table. (But) the university has really refused to make any movement on our priorities.”

The contract expired March 31. Negotiations with the union started in November 2018, university spokesperson Molly Blancett said in a statement. The current benefits for graduate employees will continue until a new contract is in place, which union leadership wants by the end of spring term.

For its new contract, graduate employees are demanding a salary raise of nearly 10% each year for three years and additional benefits like six hours of paid training a term for all graduate employees and financial support during summer.

The university’s proposal looks like this: graduate employees would move from a flat, capped student fee rate of $61 each term of employment to paying 45% of the total fees — an increase of about $264 per term, according to Peter Fehrs, assistant director of employee and labor relations for the UO.

“In recognition of that, their salary is also adjusted by the exact same amount ($264),” Fehrs said. “We’re adding the difference between what that new fee rate is into the salary so it levels out.”

The university also proposed it move from paying 95% of graduate employees’ health insurance premiums (which equates to about $1,700 per employee) to instead paying a flat amount of $1,350. Fehrs said this amount is nearly 50% more coverage than its Association of American Universities peers.

The UO’s negotiation website said the economic proposal would increase salaries by 1% each year for three years.

“In best-case scenarios, it’s a net zero; worst case scenario it’s actually a pay cut,” he said. “When it comes to fees, that’s just an outright lie, because the money is just going right back to the university.”

Fehrs agreed the fees amount to breaking even on both sides, but argues the health insurance change will put money into graduate employees’ pockets.

“It’s well within the GTFF purview of what insurance to purchase. They could change their health insurance, they could increase their coverage … .” Fehrs said. “The university does not dictate the details of that trust or the insurance.”

The bargaining session was scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. Friday but only lasted a half an hour, according to the federation, because it was disappointed in the economic proposal.

“We had made it clear over the last dozen or so bargaining sessions that we, the GTFF, is not willing to sacrifice health benefits,” Magee said. “We’re very frustrated with the process. Our membership is very disappointed.”

UO is also facing a budget shortfall of almost $13 million for next year, even after increases to out-of-state and graduate tuition last month and the announcement of $11 million in budget cuts by university President Michael Schill.

Schill and other public university presidents have been lobbying for the state to earmark an additional $120 million to higher education this year.

“We agree with the university to the degree that the state ought to fund higher education more,” Magee said. “However, the university is trying to put the burden of their budgetary mismanagement on the backs of their lowest paid instructional employees. … I think it shouldn’t be on the backs of any employees.”

Fehrs said he recognizes the university’s financial challenges but reiterated that the university is still proposing a salary increase for the GTFF. The two parties have found common ground on non-economic pieces of the contract, Fehrs said, it’s just the economic proposal left to decide. And Magee said a mediator was not needed in 2015 negotiations, but was used in 2014.

“We’re actually very hopeful about going into mediation,” he said. “Mediation can be a very beneficial process, and we think it will be a good next step.”


Author: Jordyn Brown