A Striking Difference

UO grants graduate employee union most of its demands days before a threatened strike

On Oct. 18, the GTFF held a rally outside Johnson Hall to announce membership authorized a strike.

The University of Oregon and its Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation have been negotiating a labor contract for nearly a year. In the 11th month, tensions escalated when the union told the UO it would strike starting Nov. 4. 

After both sides spent thousands of dollars in mediation fees, the GTFF and the UO have agreed on a three-year contract that doesn’t cut health insurance and provides wage increases according to inflation, says the union that represents graduate employees on campus. 

The nearly yearlong process ending with a fair contract days before a strike is thanks to community support and a union at record membership coming together, GTFF President Ellen Gillooly-Kress says. 

At 11:30 pm Tuesday, Oct. 29, as the EMU student union was closing down, the two parties reached a tentative agreement five days before the union planned to go on strike. 

The GTFF’s bargaining team has mixed emotions about the agreement. The UO tried to change how the two would bargain next cycle in exchange for visa reimbursements for international students, Gillooly-Kress tells Eugene Weekly. 

“What was callous — and, quite frankly, racist — of them was they used international visas as a bargaining chip,” she says. 

The UO wanted to introduce interest-based bargaining in which parties declare general positions on issues through a mediator. The GTFF and the UO currently bargain by putting forth detailed proposals and then hashing them out, going to mediator only if necessary.

“It’s a losing battle,” she says of interest-based bargaining. “It draws away from our power.” 

The 11th-hour proposal left many GTFF members upset at the university because it tried to use the union’s marginalized members to ease their hurt feelings, she says. 

Despite what she calls an unfair labor practice by the UO, she says that the union got most of what it asked for: 9 percent wage increases over the three years, paid parental leave, health insurance — and more. 

The UO will contribute 95 percent of the health insurance costs, covering up to a 10 percent premium increase, which was what the GTFF had in its last proposal, Gillooly-Kress says.  

If the union keeps its insurance premium increase below 5 percent, the savings goes to graduate employee salaries.

Gillooly-Kress previously told EW the union’s biggest concern was cutting health insurance. It’s one of the most important benefits when attending the UO for graduate school since, besides covering medical, it covers mental health and dental, too. 

And the health insurance helps international students who make up about one-fifth of the graduate employee body in the union. They’re concerned about health care and the U.S.’s “Wild West” medical system, says Glenn Morris, the union’s benefits administrator. 

Ever since negotiations went to a mediator in April, the UO and the GTFF have split about $18,000 in mediation bills, according to the mediator’s pay schedule and the number of meetings the two parties have had. 

The UO began the yearlong negotiations with a proposal that would have shuffled money from benefits to artificially inflate paychecks to compete with other universities in the Association of American Universities. The university gave up on that and instead tried to cut down on how much it would contribute to GTFF’s health insurance plan. 

The university’s proposal change came after it heard the community’s response to the cuts, Gillooly-Kress says. 

State Rep. Marty Wilde, whose district includes the UO area, was at the GTFF’s Oct. 18 rally that announced the union’s authorization to use a strike for bargaining. Wilde told EW that the Legislature gave universities an additional $100 million during the 2019 Legislative Session, with the intention to take care of the lowest-paid employees. 

“These are the folks who make the university run,” he said, “just like the SEIU.” The SEIU represents those who work in custodial, food services and other office positions. “We expect them to be taken care of with that additional funding.” 

That money was used for the undergraduate tuition, UO’s spokesperson Kay Jarvis tells EW. 

Wilde said that when SEIU was negotiating with Oregon’s seven universities, he said if universities wanted more funding, workers needed a fair contract. 

“We’re going to need a lot of support from the unions to go to the people of Oregon and say, ‘We want to fully fund higher ed like we funded K-12,’” he said. 

But that means Johnson Hall needs to treat workers right, Wilde added. 

When the GTFF walked back to its office after the late night tentative agreement was reached, Gillooly-Kress says they were still angry but channeled that rage, chanting outside of Johnson Hall: “UO works because we do.”

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