SEIU Solidarity Lunch Courtesy Photo 1

A banner was erected on Portland State University's campus during a union solidarity lunch for classified staff Aug. 21. Contract negotiations between Oregon's seven public universities and the union representing the classified employees who work at those universities broke down in August. (Courtesy of SEIU 503)

After six months of negotiating the contract for classified employees at Oregon’s seven public universities and two days of “frustrating” mediated bargaining at Western Oregon University, members of the Service Employees International Union 503 union declared an impasse in bargaining Aug. 16, according to a press release from the union.

One week later, the union said it would not accept the final contract offer made by the Oregon public universities and said workers are preparing to strike, according to a press release. However, union members have not yet held a strike authorization vote and have not set a date for one, SEIU 503 spokesperson Jay Parasco said.

Due to Oregon labor law requiring a cooling down period, classified employees must wait 30 days after final offers are made. The soonest that SEIU-represented employees may strike is Monday, Sept. 23 — just a few days before UO’s move-in day and Week of Welcome, when over 4,000 new students will flock to campus.

“It will stop all student services on campus,” said Stephanie Prentiss, an SEIU member and a classified employee who works in financial planning at the University of Oregon. “They wouldn't have access to housing, cleanliness. They wouldn't have access to food service. They wouldn't have access to registration.”

Prentiss said she and the classified employees she’s spoken with don’t want to strike and don’t want the strike to affect students, but it may be the only option.

SEIU Solidarity Lunch Courtesy Photo 2

Union members gather at Portland State University's campus during a union solidarity lunch for classified staff Aug. 21. Contract negotiations between Oregon's seven public universities and the union representing the classified employees who work at those universities broke down in August. (Courtesy of SEIU 503)

“We're working with students, ASUO, the community to let them know we're here for you. We just are going to be on the picket line,” she said. “You won't get the exact service you deserve and you want, but that's because we're not getting paid what we need to live.”

The SEIU 503 union represents about 1,500 classified employees including custodial and maintenance staff, construction workers and clerical staff at the University of Oregon, according to the university’s HR website. The union represents 5,000 classified staff at universities statewide, and about half of the represented employees make less than $40,000 a year, Parasco said.

The negotiations broke down over cost of living adjustments, or raises to account for inflation, and step increases, or automatic raises employees receive based on how long they’ve been employed at the university, Parasco said. The universities’ bargaining team did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The union asked for a cost of living adjustments at 3.75 percent for the first year and 3.5 percent for the second year of a two-year contract, according to the SEIU’s best offer. The universities offered no cost of living adjustment for the first nine months of the contract, followed by a 1 percent raise, a 0.75 percent raise 10 months later, and a 0.75 percent raise another four months after that in a four-year contract, according to the universities’ best offer.

“I cannot afford and most of us cannot afford to work under a cost of living that is 2 percent or less,” Prentiss said. “We just can't do it.”

SEIU also requested the elimination of the bottom step so employees and adding another top step, effectively raising their starting salaries and maximum pay, but the universities have not met that request.

The universities’ final offer also includes change just for UO employees — increasing the cost of a shift meal for dining employees from $1 to $3.

“The UO is doing everything it can in the current economic climate to offer a fair contract that demonstrates how much we appreciate these members of our campus community," UO spokesperson Kay Jarvis said.

Parasco said the union is still bargaining with the universities despite the impasse; the next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 11-13 at Oregon State University, according to the universities’ bargain blog. But he said the current offer is not “close to acceptable.” 

In the meantime, Prentiss said the union is asking members to sign a strike pledge, and the union has authorized $500,000 for a strike hardship fund, according to a press release — striking employees are eligible for a stipend to “prevent any financial disruption from being off the job.”

Lucy Neubeck contributed reporting to this story.