SEIU 503 prepares to strike at 7 Oregon universities
Since July 29, SEIU Local 503 has been circulating a member petition in support of strike authorization at the Oregon University System.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 is laying the groundwork for a strike at the Oregon University System (OUS). Local 503 represents 4,200 support workers at the system’s seven state universities, including facilities, IT, and clerical workers. After six months of bargaining failed to produce a new contract, Local 503 declared impasse Aug. 19. Now the union is collecting member signatures on a strike pledge petition, scheduling strike authorization votes around the state, and calling on faculty and students to sign a pledge not to cross strike picket lines.
Wages are a key sticking point. OUS is proposing across-the-board increases of 1.5 percent on Dec. 1, 2013, and 2 percent a year later. The union is proposing 2.5 percent retroactive to the July 1, 2013, expiration of previous two-year contract, and another 2.5 percent July 1, 2014. Local 503 is also proposing that the across-the-board raises be a minimum of $75 per month, thus bringing the lowest-paid workers up more.
The two sides also disagree on “step” increases that reward workers for sticking around. Under the previous contract, workers get a raise of about 4.75 percent a year until they reach the top of the pay scale after nine years. OUS is proposing to divide those step increases further, giving only half a step increase each year.
OUS dropped several demands that earlier had provoked union members, including a proposal to eliminate the right of more senior workers to “bump” less senior workers in the event of layoff. OUS also backed off a proposal to stop paying at the overtime rate for work beyond eight hours in a day.
But OUS also backtracked from its earlier willingness to meet the union half-way on a “wage floor” proposal. Local 503 is proposing that no worker be paid less than $2,498 a month — the dollar threshold at which a family of four becomes eligible for food stamps.
The two sides agree on health benefits, for the most part, including that employees would pay 5 percent of the premium. But OUS has balked at SEIU’s proposal that employees with domestic partners be reimbursed for the federal health benefit tax they must pay. The IRS treats employer-provided spousal health coverage as a tax-free benefit, but makes employees pay a tax on the same benefit when it covers a same-sex or opposite-sex domestic partner. SEIU views its proposal as a civil rights issue.
Last ditch talks continue
Despite the declaration of impasse, the two sides met Aug. 26 to negotiate with the help of a mediator, and are set to meet again Sept. 13 and 14 in Corvallis. Bargaining sessions rotate around the state’s seven campuses, and SEIU has organized rallies outside each bargaining session.
A group of Steelworkers union activists —on a nationwide “Summer of Solidarity” tour — stopped in Portland Aug. 28 and rallied with workers who are getting ready to strike at seven state universities.
On Aug. 28 it held another rally — after receiving an offer of solidarity from a group of steelworkers traveling the United States in a “summer solidarity tour.” About 100 union members and supporters, plus the steelworkers, assembled in Portland State University (PSU)’s Urban Plaza. Several unfurled a 20’ “Fair Contract Now” banner from the top of an adjacent building. But when union members brought their noisy protest to the nearby state chancellor’s office, they found a locked door. OUS lead negotiator Brian Caulfield greet them outside the office, and accepted their letter to the chancellor. Demonstrators next visited the office of PSU president Wim Wiewel, but were told he was out to lunch.
Wiewel — who lives rent-free in a university mansion and receives $512,786 a year in compensation — wrote to university employees in August, announcing a badge that entitles them to attend 20 PSU sporting events for free.
“I’d much rather have a living wage,” Local 503 member Lora Worden told the Labor Press. Worden said she earns $11.82 an hour doing data support at PSU’s Graduate School of Education … and has $90,000 in student debt to repay for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She’s one of an estimated 1,200 workers who would see wages rise substantially if the Oregon University System agrees to the proposed wage floor.
Strike authorization ballots will be counted Sept. 11. If members authorize it, they could strike as early as Sept. 23, after a mandated 10-day notice. Fall term classes begin Sept. 30. Local 503 is asking students and faculty to commit that if there’s a strike, they will honor strike picket lines by joining picket lines and campus rallies, refusing to patronize campus services, and canceling or skipping classes or holding classes on the picket lines.
[Previous coverage here.]
Ethan Picman, SEIU Local 503’s chief steward at Portland State University, explains the bargaining impasse with the Oregon University System, at an Aug. 28 rally.