The University of Oregon faculty labor union, United Academics, will vote Wednesday on an agreement with the university administration that would extend the union’s current collective bargaining agreement by another year.
If approved, the extension would also effectively mean that UA and the university would start bargaining afresh, according to UA. UA has been bargaining with UO since January 2020 for a new three-year contract.
“It is not an agreement we would have bargained for in the absence of COVID-19… Given the uncertainties our community and the academy face, we believe this is a good deal,” the May 4 UA newsletter to union members states.
The vote comes after a few weeks of tense discussion between the two groups on the various ideas — including a pay cut plan some faculty called a threat to their jobs — to protect the university from a prospective loss in enrollment revenue and state funding in light of the pandemic.
The proposed agreement between UA and UO includes deadlines for restarting negotiations, one-year renewals for the contracts of some career faculty and no merit or cost-of-living increases for the 2020-21 school year.
Career faculty who are renewed and who worked an average of 0.5 FTE, or full-time equivalent, during the 2019-20 school year will get at least a 0.5 FTE contract for next school year, which also gets them health insurance benefits.
UA members will vote on the plan Wednesday afternoon via a secret electronic ballot.
A university spokesperson declined to comment on the proposal, and Jaime Moffitt, UO vice president for finance and administration, couldn’t be reached for comment before publication.
With uncertainty over the state of the pandemic in the fall, UO and other universities across the nation are worried about sizable drops in state funding and enrollment numbers for next school year — meaning less revenue overall. So far, UO has frozen hiring and cut some administrative pay by 10% or more.
To prepare for potential revenue drops, UO developed a plan for if the Oregon Legislature sends less funding to UO and if the pandemic cuts into enrollment rates in the fall. The initial proposal from UO asked the union to consider a “progressive pay reduction” plan for all employees or it would be forced to dramatically lower the hours of 211 of its career faculty members.
Moffitt said that UO is looking at a possible $25 million loss on top of the current $10 million deficit in the E&G budget — the budget that funds anything related to student learning and which mostly comes from tuition and state funding.
“We want to get through this, and we want to have the full faculty and staff at the end of this that we had at the beginning,” Moffitt said. “I think as a university we're just facing, just like all universities across the country, some incredible challenges to what we're doing.”
Moffitt and a UO spokesperson would not comment on ongoing bargaining with UA.
Some UA members had felt threatened by the wage cut plan, which would also hit UO professors and instructors.
“They framed it as, ‘Well, this would be our only way to save money, then,’” said UA Executive Director David Cecil, explaining how some in the union saw the original plan as a threat.
Contracts on the line
United Academics is a labor union representing about 1,700 teaching and research faculty at UO, including tenure-track professors, non-tenure-track instructors, librarians, adjuncts and postdoctoral scholars.
UO and UA began bargaining for a new contract on Jan. 9. Its current three-year contract expires on June 30, 2020, and sets the employment terms for UA’s members.
“Career faculty” is a catch-all phrase for faculty who are not pursuing academic tenure, including instructors and researchers. Each May, when some contracts expire, UO sends out decisions on renewing contracts.
This year, 211 career faculty have their contracts up for renewal. This includes 17 faculty in the composition program, 18 from the Lundquist College of Business, and 13 from the landscape architecture department, among others, according to UA.
The Wednesday vote will also decide whether UA and UO will resume negotiating of the “progressive pay reduction plan” proposed by the administration. If approved, UA and UO would begin negotiating it by July 15, along with discussing a few other possibilities, including restoring the cut hours of career faculty for the 2020-21 school year.
“It is our hope that we will be able to find agreement on a wage cut proposal that can be approved by the faculty as quickly as possible, and that a restoration of full FTE for Career faculty be part of the deal,” the UA newsletter states.
When UA and UO were negotiating the wage cut plan in April — before they reached the agreement up for ratification this Wednesday — if they hadn’t been able to agree, the university would have dramatically lowered the hours of these 211 faculty to one-tenth of their current amount, or 0.1 FTE, down from 1.0 FTE.
“From a faculty perspective, it definitely felt like it was a threat,” UO composition instructor Nick Recktenwald said. His one-year contract is one of the 211 that the UO would reduce hours for if it and UA cannot agree on a wage cut plan.
Recktenwald described the workload of 1.0 FTE as teaching nine courses over an academic year and doing some administrative work. Having contracts lowered to 0.1 FTE would be the equivalent of teaching one class in an academic year, while also losing health care benefits.
“Which, for many people, would be tantamount to a nonrenewal even if you technically are being offered a contract,” Recktenwald said. “And so, it did feel like they were holding that as leverage.”
UA wants to secure health care coverage for those contract faculty over the summer, UA President Chris Sinclair said.
“We hope to be able to reach an agreement,” Sinclair said. “We really would like to give those faculty who are up for renewal some security over the summer.”
Cutting costs with a proposal to cut pay
The wage cut plan — proposed in mid-April — has five scenarios depending on the size of the losses in UO’s budget, which ranges from a $5 million deficit all the way to $25 million. According to a conceptual draft of the progressive pay reduction plan from the provost’s website, the plan would cut pay for all employees at higher rates for those with larger salaries — like a progressive tax structure.
The exact details of the plan still have to be worked out, according to UA’s newsletter — it’s one of the issues UA and UO will continue to negotiate if UA members vote to approve the agreement Wednesday.
UO’s idea isn’t necessarily new: Oregon Health & Science University has already cut pay for employees by about 10% after projecting a $1.4 billion loss over the next two and a half years, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. The University of Arizona opted to furlough employees making under $150,000 for up to 39 days while reducing pay for other employees up to 20%, according to that university’s human resources page.
In the UO plan’s lowest-impact scenario — if it faces a loss of $5 million — those earning anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 would lose pay, respectively, at rates up to 1.18%.
Across all five scenarios in the April proposal, the rates for pay cuts range from zero to 3.53% for those making between $30,000 and $60,000. Those making $30,000 or less wouldn’t face cuts under the proposal, and the rates top out at incomes of $200,000. The plan states it “would only be implemented if we faced significant budget challenges due to cuts to state appropriation or drops in enrollment.”
The provost’s office released a salary “calculator” for users to plug in a base salary and see the new salary at every level of proposed budget reduction.
Some UA members also say that the plan should have higher pay cut rates for those making more than $200,000, but Moffitt said the plan doesn’t increase in percentage past incomes of $200,000 because it would be an unreasonable ask.
“At some point you have to look at how much of a pay cut are you asking of people,” Moffitt said, “and is that viable for people or will they leave?”
UA members are willing to take pay cuts, those interviewed by the Emerald said, but they want more transparency from the university with regard to where that money is going before they feel comfortable agreeing to UO’s plan.
“We understand that they make decisions that they think are in the best interest of the university,” Cecil said. “But we just felt like if we're giving them $20 million of our wages back, then we should have input into what those decisions are.”
UA members also want UO to consider other cost-cutting measures before lowering the hours of faculty.
“We’re all interested in being able to meet student needs next year,” Recktenwald said.
UO has also announced modified layoffs for 282 staff members, though those individuals are from auxiliary units like PE & Rec and athletics.
Moffitt said that pay cuts for all employees of the university will be used only if enrollment declines in the next academic year and if state-funding declines as she expects. Additional pay cuts and the wage cut proposal is a concept for “what could we do that would help add stability to the budget if we face one of those issues,” Moffitt said.
UA hopes that an agreement to extend its current contract and a plan for negotiating pay cuts and contract renewals will balance the interests at play.
“What we want to do is work with the university to help craft a plan that actually ensures that we're delivering the educational experience to students but that also protects and respects the people that are doing that work,” Sinclair said.
This story will be updated if requests for comment are returned. Follow the Emerald’s coverage for the latest bargaining updates.