This past Wednesday (June 4), we had our most significant bargaining session to date. Trust me. When I say big, I mean BIG. Let me see if I can summarize everything that happened during the meeting in some bullet points first, and then I’ll get into some details.
- Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives and Democratic candidate for Oregon’s U.S. Senate seat Jeff Merkley kicked the morning off by talking in support of our efforts
- Six grad assistants and members of CGE testified to the administration on our key economic proposals; the administration seemed receptive to what they all had to say
- Gordon Lafer, a professor at the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at the University of Oregon, testified in support of our proposal on fair-share
- Oregon State Representative Brad Witt testified on behalf of 41 of his colleagues in support of our bargaining position; the administration got pretty defensive during his testimony
After 3 months of nearly no progress in negotiations, we decided that it was time to start to put a little more pressure on the administration. Jeff Merkley, Brad Witt, and the other legislators were the first part of that. An open letter to the administration has been circulating among the Oregon Legislature for some time now. You can read Jeff Merkley’s letter below.
In the last week or two, it became clear that these letters could become a large part of our strategy for Wednesday’s bargaining session, and by the time the bargaining session rolled around, we had letters in our hands signed by 42 Oregon State Legislators. To capitalize on the letters AFT-OR’s Director of Legislative Affairs helped us find an appropriate person to deliver them: State Representative and fellow union activist Brad Witt.
About a week before Wednesday’s session, we confirmed that Representative Witt would attend negotiations, testify on our behalf, and deliver the 42 signed letters (more on Representative Witt’s testimony later). However, at about the same time we confirmed Representative Witt’s support, a rumor started circulating that Jeff Merkley might also attend Wednesday’s negotiations.
This was a big deal for us. For those who have not heard of Jeff Merkley, he is currently the Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives and the Democratic candidate for Oregon’s U.S. Senate seat. Support from someone like that is huge. We confirmed Speaker Merkley’s attendance just a day or two before Wednesday’s session and a wave of optimism flowed over the bargaining team: Wednesday’s session was shaping up to be a monumental event.
The event began with a visit from some of our brothers from the GTFF, the University of Oregon’s grad employee union, who summarized the package they just earned in negotiations with their administration, which includes an 8% raise over the next 2 years and a reduction in the cap on student fees to $150 per term. (That’s right, grads at UO are now going to pay only $150 a term for fees; how much do you pay?)
After the GTFFers talked, Speaker Merkley addressed the approximately 50 observers who had gathered to watch negotiations, praising the work grad assistants do here at OSU and calling on the administration to offer us a better deal in this contract. He also refuted some of the administration’s justification for their current economic stance, informing us that the release of millions of dollars in salary money from the legislature to the university is no longer in question and that the only concern now is to maximize the amount of money that is released. (For those who haven’t been at negotiations, the administration had Jock Mills, OSU’s legislative liason, testify at negotiations a few weeks ago that OSU could not afford to offer us anything because of the doubt surrounding the release of this salary money. So much for his testimony.) Speaker Merkley’s speech fired everyone up so that, when the administration finally came in, everyone was ready to hear testimony from our members on the economic issues we’re negotiating over.
Chris Knutson from Chemistry began by testifying that OSU is being dishonest by offering a certain stipend to incoming grads and then forcing them to pay a large part of it back in fees of which they are unaware until they get here and receive their first term’s bill. Chris pointed out that the amount of the stipend OSU offered influenced his decision to come here, just as with many of the grads who decide to attend OSU, but that if he had known how much he would have to pay back in fees, he might have chosen instead to attend one of the other competitive schools who offered him an assistantship and whose fees are significantly less than OSU’s.
Brian Dietel from Math followed with testimony on fees based on his experience as an ASOSU grad senator. One of the administration’s typical responses to our demands for fee relief has been that we can control how much we are charged in fees through our representation in ASOSU and that the administration sees fees as, in a way, self inflicted. Brian refuted that argument by noting that grad students in fact have very little influence on fees, especially compared to undergrads, because of our dire underrepresentation in the ASOSU student senate. He also pointed out that tuition waivers lose their meaning when the administration is free to take things that were previously paid for as part of tuition and to begin funding those things through student fees instead.
John Klock from Zoology testified next to the effect that OSU’s failure to contribute to summer and dependent health coverage places a huge burden on grad assistants with families, citing as an example the thousands extra he has had to pay for his own daughters’ health care.
Next, Cat Searle from Zoology and Travis Margoni from English offered joint testimony on salaries. Cat, whose department has not increased GA salaries in 5 years, told the administration that, though her department is nationally recognized for their research, they are losing the grads they recruit to departments at other schools who offer better packages. Travis, whose department’s grad assistants are the lowest paid on campus, testified that the salaries they receive are barely enough to live on and that many grads in his department are forced to take loans just to be able to get by.
Finally, Jana Doppa from EECS testified on how fees and salaries have affected grad assistants from the international community. He pointed out that many talented international students have a choice between attending OSU and entering industry, where they can earn several times as much as they can here, and that pressure to earn and support their parents and/or siblings can influence them to choose the latter. He also noted that there have been many instances of international students choosing to attend OSU and then leaving for industry once they receive a few student fee bills. Jana also admitted that, because of low pay and high fees, he will likely not be able to travel back to his home country until he completes his PhD.
Each grad assistant’s testimony was compelling, and the administration actually seemed interested in what they all had to say, even intimating that they needed time to consider the testimony to see how it would affect the package they are offering us.
After the GAs testified, Gordon Lafer from LERC testified in support of our proposal for fair-share. He pointed out that including provisions for fair-share in state and federal labor law was completely non-controversial and suggested that the administration’s only motivation in refusing to negotiate fair-share into our contract is, in fact, to keep the union weak (and that, my friends, is illegal).
Finally, our big dog, State Representative Brad Witt, testified that, to an outsider, the failure to make progress in these negotiations over three months and 12 bargaining sessions might suggest that the administration may not, in fact, be bargaining in as good of faith as they ought to be, and he did not mince words in warning the administration that these negotiations have now gotten his attention along with the attention of several other members of the Oregon state legislature. As evidence of this, he dropped a stack of 42 of the aforementioned letters from Oregon state legislators into the administration’s hands.
Representative Witt’s testimony seemed to ruffle the administration’s feathers a bit. Almost shockingly, several members of the administration’s team started to pick a fight with him during his testimony, questioning whether his outsider’s perception of these negotiations was a valid one. To this, Representative Witt simply responded that he was calling it as he saw it and that any reasonable person who was marginally familiar with these negotiations would probably come to the same conclusion.
As I said before, all of this added up to a big day for CGE. We put a lot of pressure on the administration’s bargaining team, and at the end of the meeting, it seemed as though they felt that pressure to some degree. In fact, they declined to give us a written proposal they had brought to the meeting because, they said, they wanted to take time to consider Wednesday’s testimony before making another written proposal.
And, that is where negotiations stand right now, with the ball in the administration’s court. While they might have acted or said that Wednesday’s testimony was meaningful to them, all that matters is how they respond to it in writing. Hopefully we will see that at the next bargaining meeting (on Friday, June 13, from 1-5 in the Westminster House).