Graduate teaching fellows at the University of Oregon (UO) are poised to strike unless the university’s administration addresses their two major concerns: provide paid sick leave for and pay a living wage to its 1,500 employees who teach about one-third of UO’s undergraduate classes and are also graduate students.
UO graduate teaching fellows (GTF) are members of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation AFT Local 3544 (GTFF). The union, organized in 1978, has been bargaining with the administration on a new two-year contract for more than a year.
After more than six months of fruitless bargaining, union members in May accused the administration of ignoring their primary bargaining concerns and authorized its executive board to call a strike.
The executive board on November 19 informed the administration that unless some progress is made toward reaching a fair contract, GTFs would go on strike on December 2.
The GTFs are seeking a 5.5 percent increase to their minimum salary in each of the two years covered by a new collective bargaining agreement.
They are also seeking two weeks paid sick leave.
In a letter addressed to undergraduates explaining why some of their instructors may go on strike, GTFF wrote, “Our working conditions are your learning conditions. . . . You invest too much energy and too many resources to be taught by people who live below the poverty line; you deserve better than being taught by GTFs who don’t have time to recuperate from illnesses, surgery, or the birth of a child.”
UO’s administration in a confidential memo to deans and directors is encouraging them to pressure tenured and non-tenured professors to take over the GTFs’ teaching load should a strike occur.
Some faculty members are urging their fellow professors to resist such efforts.
UO depends on its graduate teaching fellows to carry much of the load for the education of its 20,000 undergraduates.
Unfortunately, it expects these employees responsible for the education of so many to live on less than a living wage. According to GTFF, 56 percent of UO’s GTFs earn less than a living wage in the City of Eugene where UO is located.
The City of Eugene passed a city ordinance requiring employers to provide employees with paid sick leave, but exempted UO.
The only way that GTFs can get sick leave benefits similar to those enjoyed by other workers in Eugene is through the collective bargaining process.
According to GTFF, “GTFs go to work when sick, delay necessary surgeries, and are forced to make up work when still sick” because they have no paid sick leave. Some who are seriously ill or injured or give birth are forced to drop out of graduate school because they have no sick leave.
GTFF says that if the administration were to agree to its proposals for a livable wage and paid sick leave, it would cost the university about $324,000 more than it would pay under the current proposals offered by UO.
The union says that UO has a $65 million budget surplus, which increased by $11 million over the previous year.
But UO administrators have so far refused to budge and have begun to make plans to break the strike should it occur.
While the State of Oregon recognizes the right of public employees to strike, it also outlaws some acts of solidarity by non-striking employees such as refusing to cross strikers’ picket lines.
In a confidential memo to deans and directors, the UO administration made this point clear and told the deans and directors to report any professors or clerical staff who refuse to work during the strike.
The memo also encourages deans and directors to pressure non-striking professors to take over the workload of GTFs who strike.
In a recent blog post, Joe Lowndes, an associate professor of political science at UO, said that UO is “seemingly willing to break the strike at any cost” and “is spending more on legal and consulting fees (not to mention scab pay) than it would cost to cover paid leave.”
But he also noted that despite pressure from the administration, there is much support for the GTFs on campus.
The faculty union, United Academics, urged its members to email UO administration and declare their support for GTFF.
SEIU Local 503 , which represent classified state at UO, wrote a letter to the administration supporting the GTFs.
The University Senate “voted overwhelmingly . . . to rebuke (UO’s) administration for planning for a threatened strike by graduate teaching assistants in a manner that bypasses the faculty and stands to bring about ‘the dilution and degradation of teaching standards’.”
“This is an important struggle for graduate students, who carry an enormous teaching, grading and research load at the university,” writes Lowndes. “It is also an important struggle for the faculty, which the university seeks to press into service as strikebreakers. What we are seeing here is the kind of anti-labor tactics at which institutions of higher education across the US are becoming adept. At the same time we are seeing powerful solidarity between grad students, faculty and classified staff.”