A strike of the University of Oregon's more than 1,400 graduate employees is one step closer to reality after the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, the union that represents GEs at UO, voted Thursday night to approve a strike by a margin of 95%. The vote comes after 11 months of contract negotiation and mediation.
Just over 1,000 GEs approved a strike in a vote, the union announced in a rally Friday afternoon.
As presidential candidates debate the benefits and costs of providing healthcare to millions of people in the United States, a microcosm of the same debate has been taking place on UO’s campus. Since November of last year, the GTFF and UO administration have been in negotiations to establish a new contract for GEs. Though the GTFF and UO have compromised on numerous issues, there is one neither side is willing to budge on — healthcare. Since the GTFF’s first proposal 11 months ago they have consistently refused to accept cuts to the university’s responsibility for GE healthcare, an arrangement UO has not accepted.
“[Healthcare] is one of the reasons people have consistently told me about,” GTFF President Ellen Gillooly-Kress said before the strike authorization vote was finalized. “The reason why they come to the University of Oregon is our stellar, amazing healthcare.”
Under the previous contract, which expired in March, GEs contribute 5% of healthcare premiums and UO contributes 95%, Magee said. Each year, as the health insurance company raises premiums, the 5/95 split is maintained up to a 10% increase in premiums. This is the status quo the GTFF is attempting to maintain.
In UO’s final contract offer to the union, it proposed the split become scaled such that as premiums increased, UO’s share of the responsibility decreased. This means that the years pass, UO’s responsibility to pay for its employees’ healthcare costs would diminish and the GE’s burden would grow.
After each party made their final offer on Oct. 3. After that, according to the guidelines of the Oregon Employment Relations Board, which mediates labor disputes, negotiations were suspended for a 30-day cooling off period. When that cooling off period ends, the university has the right to implement its final offer and the GTFF has the right to strike.
Mike Magee, the union’s bargaining team chair, said he hopes it doesn’t come to a strike. He said it would be in the best interest of undergrads, GEs and UO to come to an agreement before a strike is necessary. One way that could happen, Magee said, is an overwhelming show of willingness to strike, such was the case last month with Service Employees International Union 503, the union that represents classified employees at Oregon’s seven public universities.
When SEIU 503 voted, it reported over 95% of its voting members supported authorizing a strike. After setting a strike date of Sept. 30, one day before classes started, the union returned to the negotiating table a final time. On Sept. 28, they reached an agreement on a two-year contract with the Oregon universities, avoiding a strike.
A case such as that is still possible for the GTFF and UO. The UO administration may rescind its proposed changes to the GE healthcare payment plan. If not, the GEs will begin withholding their labor Nov. 4, the first day of week 6.
Jack Forrest contributed reporting to this story.