Long Days of CGE

CGE’s roots reach back to the mid 1990’s, when grad student employees at OSU became fed up with the University’s refusal to provide them with health coverage. In the Fall term of 1995, OSU’s grad employees began a coordinated effort to persuade the University’s administration to provide them with some sort of health benefits. In the Spring term of 1998, after the university had rejected their appeals, the grads decided to join the movement begun at other schools around the nation and unite in an official labor union. Despite the University’s attempt to throw numerous legal obstacles in their path, the grads persevered, and in the Fall term of 1999, OSU’s grad employee population voted overwhelmingly to establish CGE.

As a result of this vote, CGE became recognized by the Oregon Employment Relations Board as the exclusive representative of graduate assistants at OSU, and the University is now bound by law to negotiate with us over all aspects of the salaries, benefits, and conditions of employment of OSU’s graduate assistants.

In 2018, CGE, along with all public sector unions in the country, was hit hard by the right-wing attack on unions in the Janus v. AFSCME decision, which determined agency fees were unconstitutional. The case was specifically intended to defund unions and hurt their organizing capacity. On the day of the decision, one-third of CGE’s operating budget was cut. 

What did CGE do in response (and in preparation prior to the decision)? Get down to some deep organizing and political activation. A prevailing viewpoint over the years in our union had been that the union should only concern itself with “bread and butter” issues, and not engage in the political arena or “politics” more generally (politics in this sense by definition meaning anything concerning social justice or progressive ideas). That viewpoint could no longer be taken at face value or inform the organizing practices of our union. Moving away from “bread and butter” unionism, CGE began an internal struggle to shift toward “whole worker” organizing that understands that since struggles do not end at the workplace, neither should the union. 

Whole worker organizing meant structural changes to the union. Beginning 2016-17, CGE added new positions to our Executive Council (VP for Social Justice followed by VP for Membership), and separated the roles of VP for Bargaining & Grievances into two distinct positions. We amended our Constitution & Bylaws to create “caucuses,” and enabled membership to propose the creation of new caucuses for various long-standing issues that our union wanted to put its organizing weight toward addressing. The first CGE caucus was our Housing Caucus, and from it launched the proposal to create our current union’s “Hardship Fund” that was taken up by our Steward Council and implemented in early 2019. We quickly saw the creation of multiple new caucuses including our Pride, Women of Color, Anti-Harassment, Disability Justice, and International caucuses. These were followed by our Environmental Justice, Mental Health, and Mutual Aid caucuses. 

CGE also made changes to its Steward Council, the biggest being modifications to our consensus decision-making procedure and the creation of an internal Steward committee called our Steward Communications Committee (SCC). The role of the SCC was to foster more ownership amongst stewards over their own governing council. All Executive Council officers, who previously were expected to attend steward meetings and create their agendas, were asked to move away from being too involved in the council and our VP for Organizing (and later VP for Membership) were tasked with being the liaisons with the SCC to coordinate meetings, craft agendas, and provide needed trainings for our stewards. In short, the goal was to create an activist Steward Council, where stewards took on the serious role of field organizers instead of serving exclusively as conduits of information-sharing to their departments.

Finally, CGE intentionally expanded its bargaining approach to become a “high participation” model where we started adopting a “bargaining for the common good” platform. This resulted in the creation of a new organizing arm of our union, the Contract Action Team (CAT), and a bargaining team of 20+ members from various departments. The shift toward whole worker organizing, and an open embrace of what Bill Fletcher Jr calls “social justice unionism,” has not been without its internal critics and is an ongoing process. This is the legacy the current Executive Council, and newly established staff, are left with to take in the direction member leaders desire.

Partnership with AFT

Like many grad employee locals, CGE has joined up with a much larger labor union, The American Federation of Teachers (AFT). AFT has over 1.4 million members in over 3000 local affiliates nationwide, including over 11,000 members in 20 local affiliates in Oregon. Through our partnership with AFT, we receive incredibly valuable assistance in many forms, including skilled negotiators to help us bargain with OSU, representatives and organizers to help us serve and strengthen our membership, lobbyists and contacts within the state legislature to make help make sure our voice is heard by Oregon’s lawmakers, and monetary assistance to help us pay staffing and operational costs.

Our Contracts

CGE, with assistance from AFT, negotiated it’s first contract with OSU in the Spring term of 2001. This contract established the Union’s basic rights as well as those of grad employees, including a process through which grad employees can grieve wrongful actions taken by the University. The contract also laid out a number of basic working conditions required for grad employees, such as a limit on the number of hours of work per term the University may impose, and it outlines many benefits the University must provide to grad employees, including a minimum salary and a guaranteed tuition waiver. While this contract did not specifically include health coverage benefits, the University acknowledged in it the importance of these benefits and agreed to pay a $110-per-term “Recruitment and Retention Differential,” intended to help defray the cost of health coverage, to all grad assistants with an appointment of 0.2 FTE or more.

The next contract, finalized during the Summer of 2004, was a great success, as it included a provision stating that the University must maintain a health coverage plan for grad employees and contribute 75% of the single-person cost of this plan to all grad assistants with an appointment of at least 0.2 FTE. In addition, the 2004 contract mandated that the University must provide CGE with certain information about all grad assistants to help us to better represent them.

The 2004 contract was reopened in the Winter and Spring terms of 2006, and during these negotiations, CGE was able to take a significant step toward achieving one of our most important goals: the elimination of student fees for all graduate assistants. Specifically, the 2006 contract includes a provision stipulating that all grad assistants with an appointment of 0.2 FTE or greater will receive from the University a $250-per-term lump-sum payment. While not explicitly stated in the contract, the purpose of this payment is to help offset the burdensome cost of student fees. In addition, the 2006 contract includes a salary increase for certain grad assistants.

In 2008, CGE bargained a contract that increased the University’s contribution to health insurance to 85% during the academic year and provided for a 50% contribution toward employee summer coverage.  The $250 per term fee differential was increased to $300, and the freeze on department fee increases was extended to 2012.  Additionally, CGE secured a 3% raise for the lowest paid graduate employees.  CGE also won fair-share in 2008.  Fair-share allowed CGE to become financially independent for the first time in its history.

CGE reopened the 2008 contract in 2010 and secured further financial gains.  We bargained further raises for the lowest paid grads and an increase to the minimum salary.  Moreover, we were able, through both bargaining and legislative efforts, to roll $116/term of fees into tuition for all grad employees, and additional departmental fees were rolled into tuition for engineering students.  We also improved workload language to protect grads from overwork during the academic term.

CGE’s most recent contract was finalized in the Fall of 2012.  It included major financial gains, including an 85% ($430) per term fee waiver, as well as the waiver of the one-time $300 matriculation fee and $50 international student orientation fee.  The minimum salary guarantee was negotiated such that it will increase 3% over each of the first three years of the contract, providing better funding for the lowest paid grads.  The University’s health insurance contribution was increased to 85% over the summer, and the University’s contribution to partner and dependent care was set at 50% year round.

In Spring and Summer 2013, we  bargained to modify the contract contract to provide equally for all members of the newly expanded bargaining unit. That round of negotiations focused on creating equal rights and protections for all employees.  We were able to secure very strong workload language for newly represented GRAs and also to guarantee three weeks per academic year of time away from work.

Our 2014 contract negotiations increased the minimum salary rate, established annual salary increases for ALL employees (a big step!), increased OSU’s contribution to family health insurance to 85%, and established a 0.3 FTE minimum for folks teaching their own classes.

Beginning 2016 we engaged in a partial re-opener and maintained a 2% cola, had a 4% increase to the salary of minimum earners, and increased our reimbursement for SEVIS/Visa fees from $360 to $500 and extended it to cover partners/dependents. 

In our most recent negotiations, where preparations began as early as 2018 and negotiations launched in 2019, we went big. Really big. We began shifting our bargaining approach to “mass participation” bargaining and created a new organizing arm of our union called our Contract Action Team (CAT). Mass participation means a large bargaining team, where we were able to recruit initially 23 members to join the team and ended with 17 active members, and a large organizing arm of the union purposed just for pressuring management outside the table (our CAT, with 20+ members). Our approach shifted the overall organizing philosophy of the union at large to be more member-driven, engaged, democratic, and ultimately about base-building where the membership is understood as the key agent of change. Our style was often hostile, to some disappointment of a small portion of membership, but also inspiring. We moved staff largely to a background supportive role instead of lead negotiators, and we created a specific officer position on our Executive Council for chairing the bargaining team. 

We are presently in the midst of contract negotiations to further improve the CGE-OSU Collective Bargaining Agreement.  If you are curious about the details of any of our contracts, they can all be found in their entirety on our website at cge6069.org/resources/contracts.