UO student teachers approve strike

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Graduate teaching fellows upped the ante in contract negotiations with the University of Oregon this week with a strike authorization vote and a sit-in at the Johnson Hall administration building.

Ninety-eight percent of the members of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation casting ballots said they were in favor of a strike if the UO administration did not agree with union priorities, union operations officer Brianna Bertoglio said.

She declined to say how many members in the 1,476-member union had cast ballots in the Monday-through-Thursday voting period.

Big issues such as wages and health care costs remain unsettled, and negotiations have stalled, Bertoglio said.

"There was a two-hour discussion about washing coffee cups," she said. "That kind of thing has been settled. I suppose that's important."

The negotiations pit the graduate students -- who argue their low compensation relegates them to hardship -- against an administration that is struggling to contain the UO's overall costs and dampen its need to impose tuition increases.

The graduate students' last contract expired March 31, but the terms of the contract continue in place until a new one is reached. Bargaining between the UO and the 38-year-old union sometimes extends into the summer months.

A strike wouldn't take place until the fall, Bertoglio said. The union probably would conduct a second strike vote then to include the new graduate student teachers who are starting in the fall.

In addition, before the union can go on strike, labor laws require both sides to declare an impasse, work with a mediator to try to come to terms for at least 15 days and then hold a cooling-off period of 30 days.

The students scheduled a strike vote after a May 14 bargaining session during which the administration called off talks early and then canceled a session for the next day.

"The university suggested that we reconvene after we have some health insurance numbers. That's a piece that, in my experience, has come in this time of year in May," said Kassy Fisher, university bargainer and assistant dean at the graduate school. "Without that, it's difficult to have the full picture."

The union saw the administration's move in a different light. Bertoglio said the administration won't budge on financial issues.

"They were, like, 'We're not discussing this any further,'?" Bertoglio said. "(Union negotiators) have done every thing we can do and, at this point, (the UO is) unwilling to discuss the financials. There is really no other option (but the strike vote). We don't have any other leverage, unfortunately."

The bargainers agreed to meet Friday afternoon on narrow, nonfinancial and less controversial topics regarding work loads, both sides said. The meeting is not expected to alter the dispute on wages and health insurance.

The UO administration is offering the graduate teaching and research students 3 percent raises each year for the two-year contract. The union wants 5.5 percent each year.

But grad students get more than their wages. For example, the UO waives their tuition.

"The university is continuing to support the GTF's tuition at 100 percent. The mandatory fees continue to be supported at the level they are now under our proposal," Fisher said.

However, the administration is asking the students to help pay for any increases to their health insurance costs. The UO currently pays 95 percent of premiums, with the grad students paying the rest. For any increases, however, the administration is proposing it would cover about 35 percent, and students would pick up the rest.

That would be costly to students, because health cost have been increasing to the tune of 10 percent a year, Bertoglio said.

One more sticking point: The university each year charges the students a flat student fee amount -- $61 -- that can be renegotiated in each contract.

The administration proposes leaving the fee at about the same level, but allowing it to increase automatically in the future as student fees go up -- which has been by substantial amounts in recent years.

Taken together, the administration's proposals would mean a net loss for graduate students, Bertoglio said.

"We ran the numbers and it's less money than today," Bertoglio said. "It was analogous to telling a child, 'Hey, give me that quarter and I'll give you two dimes.'

"This is not actually complicated math, and people were able to do the math at the bargaining table and say: 'This doesn't add up. This is less money, even before you count inflation.'?"

Fisher said the administration's contract proposal might amount to a wash for some students, depending on their individual situations, but not a loss.

The administration needs the changes to contain the university's costs, she said.

"The university has a lot of things to manage and the total compensation of the GTFs is part of that," she said.