Union negotiations between the University of Oregon and the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF), which represents graduate employees (GE), formerly known as GTFs, are in full throttle after the UO offered its counter on Jan. 18.
The UO wants to use the negotiations as a way to increase graduate student recruitment through higher paychecks. The GTFF wants a pay raise but says the UO’s offer guts its prized health insurance plan and gives graduate students a false pay increase.
The UO pays $35.9 million annually for all GEs. Most of that comes from salary and a far second is health insurance.
For its upcoming three-year contract, GTFF is asking for a 9.5 percent salary increase, subsidized child care, a summer stipend, increased support for international graduate students and, among other requests, paid parental leave.
The GTFF’s proposal would cost an additional $11.7 million for the first year and $35.9 million over the three-year contract, according to estimates by the UO’s budget office.
When compared to the other Association of American Universities (AAU), the UO pays on average 1.5 times more in health insurance, depending on the GE’s household size, the UO’s budget office adds. AAU is made up of 60 research universities, including Stanford and Yale.
GEs at the UO pay far less than other AAU graduate students in student fees. Last academic year, for example, GEs paid $183 in student fees, less than the average AAU graduate student — who paid $1,004 per year.
Despite those benefits, the UO’s data analysis says GEs have a smaller paycheck compared to the average AAU graduate student. The UO has offered the union a pay raise, funded by a rearrangement of benefits.
GEs would pay an increase of annual student fees from $183 to $325. However, the university would apply the difference to a GE’s paycheck despite making the GE pay it back to the UO.
This is a common practice at other AAU universities, says Peter Fehrs, the UO’s senior labor relations coordinator. When a prospective graduate student receives an offer from an AAU, a paycheck may look really high. However, much of that pay goes back to the university through student fees.
“It’s not a game that we would love to play, but unfortunately that’s what our competitors do,” he says. “They charge more fees and if we’re looking to recruit graduate students in the future, we want to have a higher salary number.”
The UO would put a dollar amount on how much it would contribute to the health care. The UO currently pays 95 percent (on average $1,700) for a GE’s health insurance. The UO’s offer would decrease the contribution to $1,350. The UO would put the difference of $432 into a GE’s paycheck.
The sum would put a GE’s salary at $19,812, slightly more than an average of AAU salaries.
The UO offer is about balancing GE benefits and salary with its AAU peers while giving GEs what they asked for in November, Fehrs says.
Fehrs says much of the GTFF’s proposal was that GEs don’t have enough money to afford daily activities — such as child care, affordable housing and air travel home.
“The message was we need more money in our pocket,” he says.
GTFF President Michael Magee, who’s also a graduate student at the UO, says the union wants a pay raise, not a reshuffle of benefits to inflate a paycheck.
“We are not interested in reducing graduate employment benefits even if that means a higher number on your checks,” Magee says. “We want real, new additions to the contract, not reductions.”
Although Magee says moving to a flat dollar amount in the union’s contract might not be a problem for single, younger graduate students, it puts up a barrier for recruiting a diverse body of graduate employees, like those with families or disabilities.
The UO doesn’t decide which health care benefits GEs receive. The university contributes money to the GTFF and the union decides on which benefits GEs get.
However, if the UO decreases its contribution to health care, a few things could happen, Magee says. One scenario is the GTFF would increase premiums to ensure GEs can still receive the same quality of insurance. That means, however, that the supposed pay increase the GTFF would receive ends up going to health insurance anyway.
The other would be to cut benefits.
“And that means that folks who live with chronic illnesses, disabilities, GEs with children and families that currently get to be on our insurance, we have to increase the rates for them,” he says. “This is really going to be damaging and harmful to those most marginalized.”
Rearranging benefit contributions would have the UO meet the GTFF’s request for a 9.5 percent salary increase in the first year, as well as offer a comparable salary to other AAU universities. The second and third years of the contract would see an increase of 0.8 percent salary increase.
When a potential graduate student declines an offer from the UO, the university asks what led to the refusal. Fehrs says the UO’s data shows that the paycheck is the primary factor, not its health insurance package. He says matching paychecks to the UO’s AAU peers, by reining in the costs associated with GTFF’s health insurance plan, can help recruitment, which is determined by faculty and future generations of graduate students.
“We need to maintain good recruiting in order to maintain the value of a degree here,” Fehrs says. “Part of the problem is that health insurance, while it’s certainly valued by current GTFF members and GEs, does not pull people like salary pulls people.”
Magee says union members love the health insurance. A recent GTFF member poll said more than 60 percent of members made the decision to come to UO for it.
“Especially parents and people with some kind of chronic disability or illness,” he says. “They might come here and make that choice because of the good health insurance.”
Feb. 1 was the last day for submitting new articles, so now the GTFF and UO will be working on counter proposals.
“I think we realized that this is going to be challenging, and we have different proposals,” Fehrs says.
Alignment with AAU Peers
AAU: $1,004/year paid by GE
UO: $183/year paid by GE
AAU: $1,004/year paid by GE
UO: $975/year paid by GE
Assumes a 2.2 percent increase to AAU average salaries and a 6 percent increase for AAU Health Insurance
Cost of GTFF Proposal
Summer Stipend and Fees
$6, 595, 467
Salary Increase of 9.5 percent
$2, 578, 707
(international flights, parental leave,
new GEs, professional development)
$1, 814, 915
Cost Increase Year 2019
$11.7 million increase in first year,
$35.9 million over contract