A Civil Union

Graduate student union looks to make a deal with UO

Four years ago, then-interim President Scott Coltrane and the University of Oregon refused to make a deal on whether the university would pay for higher wages and paid leave with the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF). Coltrane, whose academic research involved examining the way mothers and fathers divide parenting duties, gambled. 

The GTFF went on strike late in fall term. Some mudslinging ensued from both sides. 

Coltrane lost. 

Since the 2014 GTFF strike, a lot has changed. President Michael Schill is now in charge of the university, membership dues have changed thanks to the Supreme Court and GTFs are now called Graduate Employees (GE). 

However, much of what GTFF is asking for — a pay raise to a living wage, financial support for international graduate students, for example — is still set in a context of dwindling state support for the UO.  

Living in a Post-Janus World

GTFF is doing well in the post-Janus v. AFSCME era, says Michael Magee, GTFF president and a political science graduate student. The case was a landmark ruling on whether unions can require non-member employees to pay fees.

At first, Magee says there was a fear that unions would slowly evaporate because of the Janus decision. It made the pitch to ask newly hired GEs to join the GTFF a little tougher. Before the Janus decision, the graduate student union only asked for a $5 increase for non-members to become members. 

Now, he says the union has to ask members to go from zero to $20 or $30 a month. It’s a big ask for a .49 full-time equivalent entry-level graduate employee who brings home $1,660 per month  — before taxes — Magee adds. 

He says incoming GEs have been signing up for the union nevertheless. The GTFF is currently at 85 percent membership. And the union had signed on 75 percent of the incoming cohort of GEs.

“We feel strong,” Magee says. “Now we’re back to where we were at spring term.” 

He adds that the union movement in Oregon has been gaining momentum with Oregon State University’s faculty bargaining for their first contract and grad students at Portland State getting their first contract. 

“We’re hopeful that we can take some of that energy and use it at the university for GTFF, and we can make some movement to make life better for graduate students, undergrads and everybody,” he says. 

The Art of the Deal

The UO and Schill have been vocal against a lot of the byproducts of the Trump era. Schill has sent out emails to students reminding them that the university won’t stand for hate speech and that the university stands with DREAMers. 

Magee says he commends Schill for taking a stand. 

But he wants Schill’s policies and narratives enshrined in the GTFF’s contract to hold the university to its claims that it is committed to supporting families, international graduate students and the LGBTQ+ community. 

“We see it as an opportunity to hold them accountable,” he says of the school. 

One of the proposed items that the GTFF sent to UO is that costs for university childcare shouldn’t exceed 20 percent of a GE’s salary. 

“We should be able to afford it on our salaries,” he says. Additionally, if childcare on campus is full, which is common, the university should offer financial assistance so GEs can pursue childcare off campus. 

GTFF also wants paid family leave. 

Right now, the union has 12 weeks unpaid leave, which is the state law. However, this policy hasn’t been helpful for some GEs. Magee says that he can recall how a GE gave birth on a Saturday and had to go back to work on Monday because she couldn’t afford to stay home with her newborn. 

And when the GTFF unveiled its plan to ask for summer funding for GEs, Magee says union members replied with a standing ovation. “Summer term GE positions are rare,” he says. “You have to scrape and claw for summer.”

GTFF is asking the UO to provide summer funding based on how many terms a GE worked — at $1,500 per term. This would be a benefit to international graduate students, who come on student visas, preventing them from working outside of the realm of the university, he adds. 

“If they don’t get summer funding, they have to stay in Oregon and not work and just sort of figure it out,” he says. “Usually it means taking out huge loans or the university has the implicit expectation that family will support you, which is classist and makes a lot of assumptions.”

The union will also ask the UO to subsidize international graduate students’ travels from their home country to Eugene. 

At the end of the day, Magee says the proposals are asking for a living wage. He says he’s aware that it’s a big salary increase, but the goal is that by the end of the contract negotiation, GEs would have a salary that matches what the UO says it costs to live in Eugene.  

To get there, the GTFF is asking for a nine and a half percent pay raise each year. After three years of the contract, he says .49 FTE GEs would have a living wage. 

“We think that’s fair,” he says. 

For some departments, such an increase could be difficult. Magee says that the GTFF doesn’t want to bankrupt the UO, but the university has shown it’s willing to spend money on some aspects of its operations. 

“Budgets are a reflection of priorities. If the university can afford to give Schill a raise, renovate Hayward Field, then surely they can pay [GEs] a living wage,” he says. 

Will UO Throw Its ‘No’?

When asked about how the UO would approach the GTFF in negotiations this year, Molly Blancett, interim spokesperson for the university, said in an email that the UO values graduate employees and the critical work they do to support academic and research on campus. 

“The institution is committed to working in good faith to reach a financially responsible agreement with this important employee group that provides a fair and competitive compensation package both in terms of salary and benefits,” she added. 

Blancett wouldn’t disclose what economic data UO is using for its negotiations. However, according to data acquired from the university’s public records office, the 2020 fiscal year will have a $10.6 million cost increase in salaries — which includes salaries from GEs. 

UO still hasn’t provided an answer to the proposals that the GTFF has submitted. However, the bargaining will take place with Gov. Kate Brown’s weakening support to the state’s public education system, according to all seven presidents of Oregon’s state universities who came together to respond to Brown’s budget. 

“The governor’s budget provides a stark choice for the Legislature and the people of Oregon,” the presidents said in a statement in December. “Either force universities to make cuts to academic and student support programs while also raising tuition by double-digits or make college more affordable and accessible through balanced revenue reform and meaningful cost control in areas like retirement and health care.” 

Magee says this bargaining should still look to giving the university’s graduate students a living wage because if Schill is serious about working toward academic excellence and some of the finest research, he should look to supporting those who teach the most courses and conduct the most research on campus. 

“Academic excellence comes with treating workers fairly,” he says. “Treat us fairly so we can do that work without having to worry about huge student loans and flying back to our countries. We see that consistent with improving research at the university.”

But since the GTFF hasn’t heard back from the UO, all Magee can do is wait and worry. 

“My worry is that the administration doesn’t see it that way,” he says. “They see these things opposed — that neoliberal logic that treating workers better is a waste of money.”

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