Graduate employees are workers too

By Oregon AFL-CIO president Graham Trainor

A job is so much more than a paycheck. It gives us pride, becomes part of our identity, can provide meaning to our life, and makes us feel productive and valuable to our communities.  Whether we love or hate our job, whether we work part time, full time, or overtime, our work plays a significant role in our daily lives.

Unfortunately, the lens through which workers and bosses analyze the value of work often couldn’t be more divergent.  Working people have to fight for everything we have, nothing is given to us. At the same time, bosses look for ways to devalue our work, marginalize our demands, and keep us in our place.

These divergent views are starkly evident on university campuses nationwide and across Oregon. Graduate employees and graduate researchers from Eugene to Corvallis to Marquam Hill in Portland have for months been fighting for a recognition that their work has value and is, indeed, work.

Meanwhile, university officials are pulling out all the stops to devalue and disrespect these workers.

Take the Graduate Researchers United at Oregon Health and Science University as an example. These graduate researchers organized their first union with AFSCME more than a year ago, and yet they continue to face disrespect at the bargaining table and are still without a first contract. The sticking point?  Management’s claim that these hard-working researchers are not employees, while blatantly disrespecting the union’s bargaining team with constant delay tactics.    

Just a few weeks ago, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-affiliated union of graduate workers at the University of Oregon, was gearing up for a strike after months of negotiations where management seemed hell-bent on attacking their healthcare benefits. In the 11th hour, just days before a strike was set to begin, the two sides reached an agreement. Why was yet another group of workers at a public institution in Oregon ready and willing to strike?  The value of their work was challenged, their benefits were being attacked, and they collectively chose to take a stand.

Today, the Coalition of Graduate Employees, an AFT-affiliated union of graduate workers at Oregon State University, is bargaining with management and fighting some of the same challenges at the bargaining table.

Whether it’s the Trump Administration’s recent Department of Labor rule aimed at reclassifying graduate workers at private universities as students and eliminating their ability to form unions and bargain collectively, or these examples of public institutions of higher learning right here in Oregon undermining and devaluing the work of graduate workers, it’s clear to me the Corporate Agenda recognizes the power that has come with the growth of graduate worker unions in recent years.

From calling out the undue influence of Corporate America on our public universities, to educating the public about the significant drop in state funding for higher education, to debunking the myth that graduate workers can’t be employees — faculty, classified, and graduate employee unions on our public university campuses are holding the line and fighting back.  This work has value and is important, and the Oregon Union Movement stands united behind these fights for fairness and dignity on the job, and won’t stop until we get it.


The Oregon AFL-CIO is a 138,000-member-strong federation of labor unions.

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