Rajeev Ravisankar is the president of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation. (Will Geschke/Emerald)

The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation and the University of Oregon agreed on Nov. 30 to extend their current collective bargaining agreement by a year. The contract will now continue through June 15, 2023 instead of ending in 2022. 

The new agreement also adds language that addresses areas of interest. A few of those areas include expanding access to the Graduate Student Assistance Fund such as assisting international students with visa expenses, as well as COVID-19 safety confirmations like providing workplace safety training, additional space and accommodations. Funding for the 2021-22 academic year was also extended for GEs in the final year of their PhD program, according to an agreement summary from UO Human Resources. 

In an email to the Emerald, UO Chief Human Resources officer Mark Schmelz wrote, “Reaching [an] agreement with the GTFF is an important step to supporting graduate employees while also creating some stability as we contend with uncertainties and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the University of Oregon.”

GTFF President Rajeev Ravisankar said reaching this agreement was difficult for the union as the timeline was very condensed and negotiations moved fast. Originally, the union was discussing only workplace safety changes, but the university added new items to the discussion. 

Ravisankar said this was “not an easy process,” given that the GTFF is a democratic organization with every member having to discuss and vote on the terms of the agreement. 

“To have to make a pretty big decision consideration near the end of winter term in the middle of a pandemic is a challenging set of circumstances,” said Ravisankar. 

According to Schmelz, the pandemic was a big influence on the speed of the discussions. 

“The parties agreed on shared interests and worked swiftly together to reach terms to ease the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Schmelz. 

One of those interests that made Ravisankar happy was language around disability access issues and accommodations for GEs. There was a concern from the GTFF that people’s pre-existing mental health issues and other disabilities would be treated “as if those are no longer there,” because they were working at home. 

“We got language that very much explicitly addresses that piece about pre-existing issues that people have and that those requests that were made before, well, they should carry over now,” said Ravisankar. 

But while there are aspects of the agreement that were favorable, Ravisankar said that he and the GTFF “have mixed feelings” about it and that there are areas that are lacking. One of those areas is a one-time $50 payment for GEs to cover extra expenses that come with working at home. 

Ravisankar said he would prefer a regular subsidy to help GEs pay for expenses such as improved WiFi and increased use of electricity, and that the single payment doesn’t meet their needs. 

“It, for me, shows the university's thinking on this is that they don't have responsibility for things because they have financial restrictions,” he said. “What we got was not what was envisioned and really speaks to the university's unwillingness to consider the gravity of what's at play and to take responsibility for things as people have made adjustments and taken on personal burdens.”

Schmelz said the $50 payment was “a way to balance and recognize the interests of our GEs with those of the university in a manner consistent with other relief funding available to the bargaining unit.” 

Ravisankar said there will be more work to do when it comes to these types of negotiations in the future as the pandemic and accompanying issues persist.

“This isn't sort of ‘case closed,’” he said. “We have this possibility to revisit this, we have the possibility to go back and see where we are next year, and there's going to be a need going forward. We have to see where folks are.”