Friday’s bargaining session was very productive for the CGE team. We proposed contract language for parts of Article 28 (healthcare), and laid out a few more of our healthcare goals. We also opened the subject of salary (Article 11), and spoke briefly with OSU Admin about parking.

This is pretty early in the process to propose contract language, so it’s a big win for both sides that we all think auto-enrollment is such a great idea. Of course, this is just a first draft, and I’m sure there will be a few edits before both sides are happy with the result. But this is a promising start!

We made a few housekeeping changes to the existing contract, including gender neutral language and a shift away from “graduate assistants” to “graduate employees”. This particular change got one of the OSU Admin members thinking. I’m paraphrasing here, but they said “[they] don’t think of [their] TAs and RAs as employees”. I hope they think of grad employees as family or something, because according to the Oregon Employment Relations Board, we are definitely employees (Case No. UC-04-12 for those interested in some light reading).

Here are some important changes/additions to the contract:

  • A more transparent opt-out waiver process. If a graduate employee submits a waiver form and is denied, we want them to know that CGE can help them understand the reasons behind the denial, and help them appeal if they feel they were denied a waiver unjustly.
  • An increase in employer contribution to the healthcare plan. We’re asking OSU to cover 95% of premium coverage for graduate employees during the academic year.
  • Additional premium coverage for low-income graduate employees. If a graduate employee earns income below the cut-off for Oregon Health Plan (OHP) eligibility ($1341/month gross), they should receive 100% premium and fee coverage for themselves and any partners or dependents. Asking a low-income grad employee to pay for health insurance when there’s a free option available isn’t fair, so this is what CGE is proposing to address this issue.
  • Summer insurance coverage opt-out and premium adjustment. It was pretty clear to us that a major barrier to summer opt-out coverage was finding a way for grad employees to pay the premiums if they weren’t on assistantship over the summer. Many employees switch to an hourly arrangement, which is handled differently. So in order to make everyone’s job easier, we’re proposing 100% premium and fee coverage for summer! No pesky payroll deductions, no muss, no fuss.

There were a few other changes we made to the contract language, involving the auto-enrollment process and compliance with the contract. And there are still a few things we need to discuss with the OSU Admin team before we can move toward finishing Article 28, like gap coverage. Another topic we want to discuss is the idea of normalizing departmental contributions to health insurance coverage, so potential graduate employees with families aren’t penalized or passed over. We think having a family shouldn’t be a barrier to graduate school!

After going over the proposed contract language, both teams briefly caucused before reconvening. The OSU Admin team had a few comments on the language, and made some good points. One thing they mentioned is a potential double-coverage situation for the partners of OHP-eligible graduate employees. As I mentioned earlier, this is preliminary language so we’re glad to have a conversation about potential pitfalls. We’ll be addressing Admin’s concerns in a future draft of the article.

We briefly discussed parking permits and pre-tax deductions for graduate employees. According to the Admin team, it looks like a payroll deduction over two or three months is possible, but they stressed the fact that research is still ongoing on this subject. They mentioned that the biggest barrier to payroll deduction is making sure the parking system computers can confirm grad employee appointments. Hopefully we’ll hear more from them once they’ve completed their research.

(Let me just take a moment to call out one of the OSU Admin team, who took not one but two phone calls during the course of our session. That really shows a lack of respect for the process in my humble opinion. We’re all busy people, I think setting the phone down for two hours isn’t too much to ask, do you?)

Ok, back to the issues. After another brief caucus, we opened discussion on salary. With only a short amount of time left, we started by asking the Admin team what their interests were. They didn’t express any interests beyond updating language, so we went ahead and expressed ours.

CGE wants graduate employees to earn a living wage. We think graduate school should be accessible to a range of people, and not limited by finances or family situations. Until our graduate employees can make enough money to support themselves, it remains a huge barrier for many. Data gathered by CGE suggests that almost 10% of graduate employees earn monthly income below the federal poverty line ($972/month).

If that’s not a wake-up call for Admin, I don’t know what is.

In Corvallis especially, ever-increasing (yet always high) housing costs really limit the accessibility of graduate study at OSU. According to MIT, the Benton County living wage (when adjusted for insurance) is roughly $1641/month. A full quarter (25.0%) of CGE members fall below this threshold. How can we focus on study and work when we’re worrying about making ends meet?  Suffice it to say, we have a lot to talk about in the coming sessions.

Our next bargaining session is Monday, February 22nd at Westminster. We’re giving the OSU Admin team some time to review the contract and come up with their own suggestions, so we’ll table that discussion for a later date. Salary will be the main attraction Monday! Hopefully more members of the OSU Admin team will be present to discuss this important topic.

If Monday is too last-minute, we’ll be back at the table on Friday, March 4th. Come support your bargaining team!

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