University of Oregon graduate teaching fellows on strike

Exchanging picket signs for lecture notes, Graduate teaching fellows (GTF) at the University of Oregon (UO) walked off the job on December 2, set up picket lines, and began an unprecedented strike.

“Despite the cold, spirits remained high and our (picket) lines remained strong,” read a statement on GTFs’ union’s website. “Hundreds of GTFs turned out to the picket lines today to demonstrate their frustration with the administration’s refusal to make movement on a new contract. . . The strike will continue until an agreement is reached.”

GTFs are graduate students who also teach one-third of UO’s undergraduate classes.

They play an important role in the education of UO’s 20,000 undergraduates, but they work without paid medical and parental leave or a living wage–two terms of employment that most educators take for granted.

The GTFs’ union, GTFF AFT Local 3544 has been bargaining with UO’s administration for more than a year on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Union members decided that the new collective bargaining agreement had to include two weeks of paid medical and parental leave and a living wage.

Thanks to the union’s flexibility, the union and the administration’s bargaining team appeared to be close to an agreement on the paid medical leave issue.

Both sides worked on a proposal that if included in the collective bargaining agreement would have established a Graduate Assistance Fund that provides medical and parental financial assistance for all graduate students.

The administration, however, refused to include the proposal in the collective bargaining agreement. Instead, it said that it would put the details about the fund in a memorandum of understanding between UO’s president and the Graduate School.

Without the details being included in the collective bargaining agreement there would be no legally binding guarantee that the final version of the assistance fund would resemble the proposal to which the two sides agreed. The administration would write final version, determine how it was implemented, and make changes at its own discretion.

Paid medical and paternal leave is a bottom line issue for GTFs, said the union bargaining team in a bargaining update. To achieve a fair compromise on this issue, “there must be a negotiated, legally binding agreement between employer and employee.”

On day two of the strike, community members, including construction workers, members of the University of Oregon football team, and state senator Michael Dembrow joined GTFF members on the picket lines.

Students also showed their support by staging a study-in at Johnson Hall, UO’s administration building.

“We refuse to stand idle as our GTF’ are exploited, our tuition money goes to union busting lawyers, and our university becomes more corporatized. Working conditions are learning conditions!” reads a posting on the Facebook page of the Student Labor Action Project, one of the student groups that organized the study-in.

There are two other unions on campus, United Academics (UA) is the union of tenured and non-tenured track faculty and SEIU Local 085 is the union of the university’s classified employees.

Both are prohibited by law from honoring the GTFF picket lines, but both have expressed their support for the striking GTFs.

Local 085 is urging its members to show their support for the strike by joining the GTFF picket lines and passing out GTFF literature before or after their work begins and during lunch and break times.

The university administration has been encouraging and in some cases pressuring tenured and non-tenured faculty to help break the strike. UA has informed its members that the union will support them if they feel that they are being forced by the administration to act against their conscience.

“We will do everything that we legally can to encourage all faculty to stand with our union colleagues,” said Michael Dreiling, UA president in a statement about the strike.”

In an attempt to get the negotiations back on track, a mediator has scheduled a meeting between GTFF and the administration on December 4.

The union is urging members to rally at Johnson Hall, where the meeting will take place.

“The continued support of our members . . . is critical,” said the union to its members.  “We saw over the past ten days that just meeting with the mediator isn’t enough — we need the continued external support of our members.”

“The administration’s bargaining team needs to hear you,” continued the union’s message. A strong show of support will send an important message to the administration that it can no longer conduct business as usual.

GTFF has also filed an unfair labor practices charge against the administration for intimidating, coercing, and punishing GTFs during the days leading up to the strike and has set up a strike fund. Donations to the fund can be made here.

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