GTFF contract negotiations head to mediation

Graduate Employees held a mock funeral procession on April 3 starting at 13th Avenue and ending at Johnson Hall to mourn the end of a 3-year contract with UO.  (Donny Morrison/Emerald)

Last Friday, a mediator from the state arrived at the University of Oregon to begin the next phase of negotiations in the ongoing contract dispute between the UO administration and the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation.

“The university is hopeful that a third-party mediator can initiate new conversations and advance the negotiation process,” UO administrators said in an April 19 update on the negotiations.

Negotiations have stalled over the new healthcare plan UO offered its graduate educators. The GTFF’s current proposal gives graduate educators a cost-of-living pay raise while maintaining their current healthcare plan, which covers 95 percent of their premiums. The administration’s proposal also raises the pay for graduate educators but adds fees to their healthcare plan.

The negotiations began in November 2018 and may not be over before the end of spring term.

Why does the process take so long? It’s Oregon law.

“Public policy drives the law,” said Janet Gillman, the state conciliator with the Employment Relations Board. “It’s in the best interest of our state and of our citizenry and of our public services that people are resolving their differences constructively and they’re not resolving them on the street.”

The collective bargaining law in Oregon requires 150 days of direct bargaining — meaning negotiations without third party moderation — before a mediator can be unilaterally requested by either party. During that period, the GTFF and the administration had nine bargaining sessions, but they weren’t able to come to an agreement.

Both the UO Human Resources department and the GTFF announced that they called for mediation after their ninth bargaining session on April 5, but according to the GTFF website, the GTFF actually requested a mediator on April 8, exactly 150 days after their first bargaining session.

The first mediation session was on April 26, almost three weeks after the call. That’s in line with the typical timeline to start mediation for the Employment Relations Board, Gillman said. There are only three mediators with the ERB for the entire state, including Gillman. They try to offer the first mediation date within 21 days of the request.

The bargaining and mediation process is very successful in Oregon, Gillman said. She said only three unions have striked in Oregon in the past five years, although she noted that one of those was the GTFF union in 2014.

Once the mediator arrived, the GTFF and the administration have a minimum of 15 days to complete at least two mediation sessions, after which they can choose to continue negotiating with a mediator or either the GTFF or the administration can declare an impasse, ending the negotiations.

From there, both sides have seven days to make their best offer, which is made public. Then there is a 30-day cooling-off period during which mediation can continue. Then the administration can choose to impose a contract, and the GTFF can choose whether to strike.

They can’t strike before those 30 days are up, and they need to announce the strike 10 days before it starts, though they can make that announcement during the cooling-off period. If mediation breaks down, the soonest the GTFF can strike is June 17—after spring term finals and after graduation.

But Rajeev Ravisankar, VP for External Relations for the GTFF, said the GTFF aren’t considering striking or timelines yet. “We’re focused on mediation for now,“ he said. “We’re really hoping that the mediator can help in terms of moving the two sides closer.”

Ravisankar said they were prepared to continue bargaining over the summer. “We’re looking at this as something to commit to over the long term,” he said.

Meanwhile, the GTFF contract expired on March 31. But the conditions of the former contract will continue for the over 1,400 graduate educators who are represented by the GTFF until they have a new contract.