This week will decide whether or not the first graduate student strike in the history of Oregon will take place at the University of Oregon. It will also decide whether Graduate Teaching Fellows grade your essays, tests and final projects during finals week, or whether they’ll be picketing instead.
But why are the GTFs striking? What do they want? And how will it affect your finals week? This GTF strike guide has everything you need to know about how a strike could affect UO students.
What is the GTFF?
The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation is a labor union of graduate employees of UO. They represent about 1,100 from a total of 1,400 GTFs employed by the university, according to the GTFF.
The GTFF bargains with the university every two years to negotiate their contract, aka the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
What is bargaining?
Collective bargaining is the process through which unions, such as the GTFF, negotiate contracts with their employers — in this case, the university’s administration — to resolve issues such as pay, leave, benefits and working conditions.
What do GTFs have now?
Pay: The GTFs are divided into three tiers. Level 1 GTFs, the lowest tier, are paid a minimum monthly salary of $1,335.99. Their pay also depends on how many hours they are working, known as a “Full-Time Equivalent.” For example, anything below a 0.5 FTE is considered half-time employment. GTFs work from 0.2 to 0.49 FTE during any given term. Individual salary depends on which department the GTF works for, as some departments can pay GTFs above the minimum salary. GTFs also receive a tuition waiver for nine to 16 credits per term. – Leave: The GTF currently has 12 weeks of unpaid medical and 12 weeks of parental leave per 12 month period.
What do GTFs want?
Higher Pay: The GTFF has asked for a 5.5 percent raise of the minimum salary for all GTFs for two years. – Paid leave, medical and parental: The GTF has asked for two weeks of paid medical and parental leave. The university has not offered the GTFF any paid leave, but continues to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
Why doesn’t the university give it to them?
It’s not about the cost, according to Julie Brown, director of communications at UO. The university doesn’t offer paid leave to any other employees who work less than half time, such as nontenured or adjunct faculty and administration staff.
Right now, students have up to 12 weeks of projected job leave, according to UO Provost Frances Bronet in a past interview. No other employees that work less than half-time get paid family leave, Bronet said, and it would be unfair to give the GTFs special treatment.
Bronet was not available for comment for this article.
Who supports the GTFF?
Undergrads: The ASUO and the Student Labor Action Board have both published open letters in support of the GTFF. SLAP has also hand-delivered three letters as of Nov. 13 to Johnson Hall. These letters, addressed to Interim President Scott Coltrane, contain requests to speak with him about how the strike will affect UO students.
Unions: In addition to writing open letters in support of the GTFF, the SEIU, the union of UO classified staff and United Academics, the faculty union, have both shared excerpts of the collective bargaining agreement to show that part-time employees of both groups can receive a form of paid leave.
How did we get here?
According to the GTFF, everything was going well before this year, until the university hired a lawyer.
“Before, the grad school used to have a position filled by someone we had a history of working with,” GTFF president Joe Henry said in a past interview, “who knew institution, laws, GTFF, and so it was a good kind of working relationship. And that changed with the hiring of the outside lawyer.”
But according to the administration, hiring a lawyer isn’t uncommon in bargaining.
“It’s not unusual to enlist outside help,” said Brown. “Someone with extensive legal expertise.”
How do we compare to other schools?
It’s not necessarily a standard for graduate assistants country-wide to have paid leave, according to Rodolfo Palma, field representative. Palma noted that it’s common in universities that have well-organized unions for graduate students.
“It’s not so much about market,” Palma said. “It’s about ‘can this university grant us this?’”
A graduate teaching assistant or graduate research assistant at OSU working .49 FTE makes $1690.99 per month, which is more than UO’s by about $300 a month. But, graduate students don’t get paid leave, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employees.
At Portland State University, salary is very low for graduate students – around $1,000 per month for students working a .49 FTE. They get unpaid leave and no specified parental leave.
What needs to happen in order to avoid a strike?
The GTFF and the administration will attend a final mediation session in order to reach an agreement the day before the strike would begin, Dec. 1. If an agreement is not reached, then the GTFF will begin to strike after the 30-day cool off period has ended, following Thanksgiving break.
What will happen to faculty and the way they teach classes?
Each department will have to decide a plan of action from these options outlined in an Academic Continuity Plan put out by administration:
• Cancel classes so faculty can use that time to modify finals
• Change final exams so grading is faster (i.e. shortening page length for final essays or creating multiple choice exams)
• Forgo the final altogether and let students finish with existing grade
• Hire non-GTF graduate students, or even upper-level undergraduate students, to grade
• Increase the hours of part-time faculty
Members of faculty have opposed this plan in a Senate resolution, saying that the administration is “diluting and degrading” academic excellence with this plan.
What to expect from classes and from your GTF?
The GTFF has published a letter to undergraduate students on its website, explaining its reasons for striking and explaining the process of bargaining. While GTFs will be striking as employees of the university, they can still attend their classes as graduate students. Not all GTFs may choose to participate in the strike, nor are they required to.