Strike looms over contract stalemate at Oregon public universities

ASHLAND, Ore. — Roughly 5,000 Oregon workers may soon walk off the job.  Tensions are coming to a head between several Oregon public colleges and their classified staff.  The union representing some 200 staff members at Southern Oregon University said it may all lead to a strike.

“What we’ve seen from the other side of the bargaining table has frankly been insulting,” said classified employee Barbara Henson. She is an office worker, helping humanities students and staff. She also serves as the Vice-President of the staff union at Southern Oregon University, SEIU 503 Sublocal 84.  She told us she just started making as much as her son who’s worked at a grocery store for only 2 years. “I’ve been working at SOU since 2012,” said Henson.

President of the staff union at Southern Oregon University, SEIU 503 Sublocal 84, David Raco says classified staff make the least of all university employees. “Across all the universities it’s about 1,500 earning less than $12.58,” he said, “which is low enough to qualify them for food stamps and other forms of public assistance.”

Classified employees fulfill many types of work. These are the schools’ custodians, office workers, nurses, security, landscapers, and IT specialists. “They present a lot of the innovative ideas that have made this university sustainable,” commented Henson, “.. more of a green campus and bee friendly.  All of those great, innovative things that you love to see out of a university that our classified staff are responsible for.”

Raco and Henson both said the union does not agree with a recently proposed contract for all classified staff at Oregon’s public universities. There are seven schools involved in the current contract negotiations: SOU, Oregon Tech, University of Oregon, Western Oregon University, Eastern Oregon University, Oregon State University, and Portland State.

Raco says the main sticking points stem from what he called broken promises compounded with disparity of pay. It all follows $100 million dollars allocated to the institutions this year. “The universities bargaining team told us that if we got they would be reevaluating those inflation adjustments and they haven’t,” said Raco.

“We 100% agree with the SEIU that they are an integral part of running our institutions,” said spokesperson for the public universities, Diane ‘Di’ Saunders. She said funding is limited everywhere, “The decrease in state funding over time has really been difficult on the universities.”

Saunders says the union is asking for 18-20% compensation increases in 2 years, the Universities are offering 9%, “We believe that the 9% increase over two years is a very generous pay increase for folks in the state,” said Saunders.

Raco said those percentages don’t tell the whole story, because of the way the new proposal breaks down step-increases. Those are annual, guaranteed pay increases for those who do their job well. He said if the current proposal was accepted, it would take longer for workers to get a raise, “It would take our employees twice as long to max out their pay. For example a newly hired custodian under their proposed changes would take 13 years to reach $15 dollars an hour.”

Raco also said part of what the union is asking for, is to make up for previous years of inadequate cost of living increases. He said their cost of living increase of 1% from their most recent contract, isn’t keeping up with inflation. “I can speak for SOU, and the administrators they gave them a 3% cost of living adjustment that was retroactive to January. The contract they gave the faculty is 4% increase this year and then 4% in 2021,” Raco told us, “They are signaling they have the money to offer those increases and now they’re telling us they don’t, and we feel disrespected.”

Henson said if the offer doesn’t change, a strike is likely, “It seems like most of the sacrificing is being expected from the classified staff. It’s unusual to see that happening because we know we are the lowest paid workers. So the cuts they are presenting to us, isn’t going to have the same kind of savings, as if they did the cuts from the top.”

Thursday a final, official mediation session was held. Raco said it may be a few days before they know the outcome of that meeting. He does say, if they cannot agree there will be a mandatory cooling off period, after which the union’s members would vote on holding a strike. If a strike were to occur, both sides agree, it would likely take place at the beginning of the fall semester.

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