Classified workers enter contract negotiations, could strike next month

Negotiations have officially begun between the Oregon University System and the union that represents classified staff at Oregon public universities over the employees’ contracts for next year. Some contract provisions have sparked protests that could result in a union strike.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents University employees who are not faculty or administrators, has held months of public rallies and meetings to protest provisions of a contract offer from OUS. Among the provisions to which the SEIU objects are a two-year freeze on raises, less funding for health coverage and a provision that gives OUS the power to furlough employees on the spot without prior notice.

The SEIU negotiation team agreed to a vastly different set of demands Aug. 15, a contract that  includes unchanged medical coverage, a one-year salary advancement freeze, no cost-of-living adjustments during the contract’s duration, and only 10 to 14 temporary furlough days.

The union’s negotiation team agreed upon the demands unanimously and entered into a 15-day negotiation period scheduled to end Aug. 30.

SEIU object to the decrease because of perceived inequalities with members of the state workers’ union. Most state workers make agreements with the state government, while the state university union members handle their transactions with the Oregon State Board of Higher Education.

Edward Hershey, the SEIU’s director of communications in Salem, called the SEIU’s proposal a “shared sacrifice” between the OUS and union members.

“We want the classified University workers to be treated the same way as the state workers,” Hershey said. “It’s unfair for them to take away these benefits from us, especially since the state laborers are not faced with these changes.”

In a statement released after the Aug. 15 meeting, SEIU bargaining team chairperson Kermit Meling said: “From the start of bargaining, we have sought to keep state workers on the job serving Oregonians and to ensure that we do not shoulder more than our fair share of the burden necessary to see the State through the worst economic crisis of our lifetime.”

Hershey said OUS is targeting the lowest-paid employees to make the ordeal less visible. “The OUS’ position on this negotiation is shameful,” he said. “They keep saying they need more time to understand the roles of each job, but have clearly had enough time to campaign vigorously against the union.”

OUS has not publicly disclosed its plans for the negotiation. “Our main objective is to avoid laying off employees,” OUS Director of Labor Relations Rick Hampton said. “We have only so much money apportioned to us, with a majority of it coming from tuition. We must balance the needs of both the students and employees.”

If either party declares impasse within the 15 days, a 30-day cooling-off period will follow. At the end of this period, the union members have the right to strike. “We certainly hope it won’t come to the SEIU going on strike, but who knows how much longer we can take,” Hershey said. Both Hershey and Hampton declined to make definite predictions about how the negotiation would end.

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