Grad worker strike averted at University of Oregon

Hundreds of union members attended a practice picket Jan. 11 outside the campus building where GTFF and university admin bargained. | Photo by Christian Tensuan, courtesy of GTFF

By MALLORY GRUBEN

University of Oregon graduate teaching and research assistants reached a tentative agreement Jan. 15, just two days before a planned strike. If ratified by members, the three-year agreement would raise wages by up to 45%.

UO employs about 1,400 graduate employees, about 1,150 of whom are dues-paying members of Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF), also known as Local 3544 of the American Federation of Teachers. Graduate employees teach classes, grade assignments, conduct research, run discussion groups and lab sessions, and perform administrative duties, all while attending classes for their own masters or doctorate degrees. According to the latest data the university shared with GTFF, graduate employees in 2019 taught 17% of the university’s courses, 80% of labs, and 93% of discussion sections.

At UO, graduate employees can work no more than half time, or 216 hours per academic quarter. Under the previous contract, if they worked the maximum hours, UO had to pay them at least $1,934 per month. Graduate employees can earn more if they are farther along in their degree program; the more schooling, the higher “level” they are on the salary scale.

The tentative agreement would increase the minimum salary to $2,550 per month, with cumulative increases ranging from 18.98% to 45.32% over three years, depending on a worker’s level and existing pay rate.

Beyond raises, the tentative agreement would:

  • Give workers four more weeks of paid family/medical leave.
  • Increase the university’s contribution toward health insurance premiums.
  • Decrease the fees graduate employees pay during summer months.
  • Require the university to reimburse student visa and federal exchange program fees for international graduate employees.
  • Provide new resources for graduate employees who have children. The resources include memberships to care.com, a website that lets people search for and contract local child care providers.

“This is the most historic contract we have gotten in our near 50 years as a union,” said Emily Beatty, a third-year graduate employee and member of the GTFF executive board. “It reflects how much work we have done to get our membership organized and show the university we were serious about going on strike if they weren’t going to concede.”

GTFF started contract negotiations with UO in March 2023, and the previous contract expired in June. In November, workers passed a strike vote with 97% approval.

On Jan. 5, GTFF submitted the required 10-day notice for a strike that they intended to start Jan. 17.

GTFF and UO negotiators met Jan. 11 and Jan. 15. During the Jan. 11 meeting, GTFF held a practice picket outside the building where bargaining was happening, and UO substantially increased its wage proposal, Beatty said. But the updated proposal did not include back pay, and the raises in years two and three were lower than union members wanted, so GTFF planned to reject the offer at the Jan. 15 meeting, end negotiations for the day, and start the strike as planned.

“To our surprise, the university’s team was like, ‘Actually, we want to bring you something today. Will you hang back instead of leaving?’” Beatty said. “They came back with a deal that not only gave us back pay but also increased the years two and three for both the minimum (salaries) and across the board. That was a pretty big jump.”

At press time, GTFF had not set a date for a ratification vote, but workers were expected to review the tentative agreement at a general membership meeting Jan. 19.

GTFF executive board member Emily Beatty. | Photo by Christian Tensuan, courtesy of GTFF

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