Oregon Graduate Teaching Fellows authorize strike after negotiation impasse

AUD readers may have noticed that we have recently covered a number of struggles pertaining to adjunct faculty. We invited Jonathan Turbin, an organizer with the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation at the University of Oregon, to write the following article because we saw parallels between the GTFF’s situation and that of adjuncts, who are still fighting to be treated with the same rights within their unions as given to full-time tenured faculty. -Ed.

On October 20, 2014, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) declared impasse in their negotiations with the University of Oregon Administration. That same week, graduate teaching fellows voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike; in total, over 700 graduate teaching fellows voted (around two-thirds of full members), and 86% voted in favor of authorizing a strike. This turn of events is remarkable, as the GTFF has not held a strike vote in over thirty years. Every two years, the GTFF bargains with the Administration of the University of Oregon for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Prior to declaring impasse and voting to authorize a strike, we had been bargaining for approximately a year and working with an expired CBA since last March. During negotiations, the GTFF bargaining team found itself across the table from an actively hostile and condescending Administration bargaining team, represented by an outside law firm devoted to union-busting. All of these could be reasons for a declaration of impasse and strike authorization vote, but the number one reason cited for many of our members was the importance of paid leave.

Currently, graduate teaching fellows teach approximately one third of all courses at the University of Oregon, making the working conditions of graduate employees the learning conditions of University of Oregon undergrads. Our health and well-being directly redounds to the quality of the education we are able to provide. As I write this, graduate employees at the University of Oregon have no form of paid leave if they get hit by a car, fall seriously ill, or add a child to their family. A graduate teaching fellow who is taking heavy doses of pain medication, suffering from head injuries, or operating on two hours of sleep due to taking care of a newborn is not going to be an effective educator. If a graduate teaching fellow chooses to take time off, they are at risk for wage reduction and insurance termination at a time when it is most needed. The loss of a tuition waiver during unpaid leave (a benefit afforded to graduate employees at nearly all major universities) poses an additional financial hardship for graduate students. In short, this policy forces graduate students to return to work before it is advised by a physician.

The GTFF’s proposal for two weeks of paid leave is neither unreasonable nor radical. Nationally recognized universities such as the University of Arizona, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Purdue University offer paid leave for graduate employees. Scott Coltrane, a nationally recognized expert in parental leave as well as the University of Oregon’s interim president, has gone on record saying that “corporations and governments, who want to see a more resilient and equal-opportunity workforce, will realize it is in their best interests to help balance work and family obligations for everyone.”1 The GTFF, which is one of the oldest graduate employee unions in the nation and represents over 1500 Graduate Teaching Fellows and Research Fellows, merely seeks to take President Coltrane at his word. At a time when the university is experiencing a 65 million dollar surplus, as well as a two billion dollar fundraising campaign, how can the University of Oregon in good conscience refuse to extend to graduate employees something which President Coltrane recently described as “very helpful . . . for the long-term wages of the family?”2

Graduate teaching fellows do not want to strike. The decision to strike is highly personal, and not to be made lightly. We urge the administration of the University of Oregon to settle quickly in order to prevent an unnecessary labor action.

1. Scott Coltrane, “The Risky Business of Parental Leave,” The Atlantic, 11/29/2013
2. Claire Cain Miller, “Paternity Leave: The Rewards and Remaining Stigma,” The New York Times, 11/7/2014

Update: On Wednesday, December 9, 2014, the University of Oregon and the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation reached a contract agreement, ending the GTFF’s 10 day strike. The new contract (which, as far as we can tell, still has yet to be ratified by the union’s members) provides for a 5% raise over two years, as well as a “hardship fund” that members can tap into in case of serious illness or emergency. The fund is a compromise on the paid medical and maternity leave originally requested by the GTFF. – Ed.

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