After a 22-hour-long bargaining session, Service Employees International Union Local 503 — one of the unions representing workers at Oregon’s public universities — and the bargaining team representing those schools reached a tentative agreement on a new two-year contract on Saturday.

The deal averted a strike that would have began the morning of Monday, Sept. 30 — the day before classes begin at the University of Oregon and some other Oregon colleges — if the union and universities couldn’t settle on a new contract. Now, the union’s constituents will vote sometime in the coming weeks whether to ratify the two-year contract, which would begin in November if approved.

The tentative agreement came after months of mediated bargaining sessions between the group representing Oregon’s seven public universities — including UO — and SEIU Local 503, which represents a total of about 4,500 classified employees in those schools.

“The reason that we, as classified staff, were able to obtain that is because everyone fought so hard,” said Stephanie Prentiss, the vice president of SEIU Sublocal 85, the chapter of SEIU Local 503 that represents UO’s classified staff. “We're not asking to be rich. Of course, that's not our goal. We are asking [them] to give us an opportunity to be healthy and do our jobs to the best of our abilities and be able to provide for our families.”

SEIU Sublocal 85 represents about 1,300 classified employees at UO who work in dining services, student registration and information technology, among other areas. In total, SEIU 503 represents about 72,000 people who work in health care, nonprofits, higher education, local and state government.

Classified employees include workers in food preparation, maintenance, custodial services and information technology, among other areas. Annual wages for classified staff range from about $25,000 to more than $100,000, according to a Sept. 28 statement from the universities’ bargaining team.

SEIU Local 503 has been pushing for higher cost of living adjustments to make up for what they say does not keep up with the actual costs of living, Prentiss said. The union also said that Oregon’s public universities employ too many managers and pay them overly high salaries.

Cost of living adjustments, or COLAs, are automatic increases in wages that are meant to keep up with changing costs of living.

Over the months that they’ve been negotiating, the universities’ bargaining team has emphasized the growing economic pressures coming from the increasing costs of benefits for public employees. In one of the first bargaining sessions between it and the union, the universities’ bargaining team said that Oregon’s public universities are facing a 25.1% increase in costs from PERS, or the Public Employees Retirement System, over the next biennium, along with a 9.3% increase in health care costs.

The universities’ bargaining team also cited how a 2019 Millman Group study found that Oregon employees pay 3% of the cost of covering health benefits for state employees, while employees in California and Washington pay 20% and 14%, respectively.

“We hope that with these facts you will engage us in a creative and positive discussion of how to best share in these costs,” reads the opening statement from the universities’ bargaining team, which University Shared Services Enterprise negotiated on behalf of, at a Feb. 28 meeting.

Classified employees at Oregon’s public universities get pay increases through a combination of step increases and an annual cost of living adjustment. Step increases are automatic, annual wage increases for workers as they “accumulate years of service,” according to the Illinois Policy Institute, a policy think tank.

“We are deeply appreciative of the dedication these employees demonstrate every day in their jobs on our university campuses,” the universities’ bargaining team wrote in a statement after the union announced the deal. “Their work makes an enormous difference in the education and lives of our students, as well as the research and community services that Oregon universities provide throughout the state.”

The pending two-year contract — described by SEIU Local 503 as the best “in over a decade” — includes:

  • A total 5.1% cost of living adjustment over a two-year period for all classified staff
  • Forty-eight hours of paid time for workers if campuses close or open late because of inclement weather, over the two-year period of the contract
  • Workers who have worked for five years and have no additional step increases will receive a 2.5% “longevity premium”
  • Maintaining the $1 price of meals for UO dining-service employees, after the universities proposed a price increase to $3
  • No change in workers’ health care costs

“This is a win for the 4,500 workers who dedicate their lives to Oregon universities,” said Melissa Unger, the executive director of SEIU Local 503, in a statement. “This hard-fought victory is a testament to the strength and solidarity of Oregon’s front-line university workers.”

After the union declared impasse on Aug. 16, it and the universities’ bargaining team had to submit their final contract offers to an outside mediator within a week, as per Oregon law.

But a month after sending in their final offers, a period of time known as the “cooling-off period” in Oregon law, neither the union nor the university could settle on a final contract, and SEIU Local 503 called a vote to authorize a strike. Over 95% of its constituents then voted to approve a strike if the union couldn’t settle a deal with the universities.

After bargaining sessions that SEIU Local 503 has described as “frustrating” and “frankly insulting,” the agreement comes as a reprieve to Prentiss, who’s worked at UO for nearly two decades.

Prentiss said that classified staff will be voting in a few weeks on whether to ratify the contract and that she wants to maintain the momentum of the union’s campaign.

“By getting this momentum up and explaining it and giving them a clear picture of how this contract works, then I think that they'll be willing to keep this,” Prentiss said. “It’s the best contract I've seen in 18 years. I have never seen a cost of living this high. So I'm really happy.”