The Graduate Teaching Fellow Federation at the University of Oregon turned heads Wednesday when students carried a casket down East 13th Avenue and laid it on the steps of Johnson Hall in a ceremonial funeral for its contract with the university.

The procession and speeches by federation members that followed were a theatrical call for the university to stop “dragging its feet,” said federation spokesperson Rajeev Ravisankar. The group, whose contract expired at the end of March, wants UO to present its latest economic proposal at the next negotiation meeting on Friday.

In the new contract, the federation is demanding a salary raise of about 10 percent and additional benefits such as six hours of paid training on how to teach undergraduates and financial support during summer, he said. The GTFF bargaining team has been developing these new demands since summer 2018.

“If you look at where the two sides stand, there is some distance,” said Ravisankar about the relationship with the university. The federation represents 1,400 graduate employees at UO — 81 percent of whom are full union members — and enters into new contract negotiations with the university every three years.

Molly Blancett, UO spokesperson, said in a written statement Wednesday that the university is committed to continuing negotiations in good faith and settling on a contract that stays within the realities of the current budget issues the university is facing.

University officials, who are pushing legislators to earmark more money for higher education, are forecasting a nearly $13 million budget shortfall next academic year. That shortfall could be made up by increasing in-state student tuition costs, additional expense cuts and potentially layoffs. Until fall enrollment numbers are known and legislators make a decision on funding, it’s unclear how severe the university’s budget woes could be.

“The UO is facing significant financial challenges, but we remain committed to increasing graduate employee salaries,” Blancett said. “We have provided an economic proposal that puts the average (graduate employee) salaries ahead of our (Association of American Universities) peers, while still preserving health benefits and a fee structure that is more generous on average than peer institutions. (The UO) would do so by transferring some money currently going to health benefits and fee waivers and apply that money to salaries.”

But Ravisankar said that plan is exactly what the federation does not want to happen — especially in light of UO’s potential financial shortfall.

“We could see them really gunning for the healthcare as part of that,” he said. Ravisankar also fears that if budget cuts come to layoffs, jobs of non-tenured faculty such as graduate employees will be on the chopping block.

The federation’s goal is to get a new contract worked out by the end of spring term, but Ravisankar said negotiations — which Blancett said began in November — could run as late as fall 2019.

Until then, benefits outlined in the expired contract will continue until a new contract is established, Blancett said. And while key issues remain to be worked out, the negotiation process still has yielded some results.

“We have found agreement on particular articles (of the contract), but not on that economic proposal,” Ravisankar said.

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