Oregon university workers could start school year on strike
Sitting in a conference room at the Hamersly Library, Jackson Stalley wore a large pin emblazoned with a cobra: "Ready to strike."
Stalley, a library technician at Western Oregon University, is one of about 220 classified workers there who could walk off the job in September. They may not be the public face of academic institutions, but classified workers like Stalley — of whom there are about 5,000 across the state — make universities function from day to day.
They're the people who make sure the bathrooms are clean, the students are fed and that young scholars can find the right article in an academic journal.
"When something doesn't work, people call me," Stalley said.
But on Aug. 16, Oregon's seven public universities reached an impasse in negotiating pay increases, benefits and time off with those workers. SEIU Local 503, the union representing classified university workers, said the stalemate could lead to a strike next month, just as the state's roughly 64,000 university students will be starting classes.
University workers say they're getting short shrift compared to other workers on the state's payroll — especially just after lawmakers voted to boost the amount of money going to public universities by $100 million over the next two years. The median classified university worker makes $36,000 per year, according to SEIU 503.
The union is railing against what it says are sky-high salaries for top administrators, bloated management and modest pay raises compared to other state workers.
"This causes a significant amount of resentment, where the lowest paid employees, every two years, have to fight to not go on to welfare," Stalley said, "At the same time we're seeing higher education administration explode, in terms of numbers and their compensation."
The looming strike also highlights longstanding state budget trends that have put the squeeze on public universities. When Oregon voters approved a series of ballot measures in the 1990s, they largely transferred the burden of paying for public K-12 schools from local property taxes onto the state. The switch left less money for everything else the state does.
Paired with rising costs of health care and retirement benefits for workers, higher education felt the impact. And in 2013, after the state restructured the state's public universities to independently govern themselves, classified university workers split off into their own union.
Stalley said what higher education workers receive has not kept pace with employees working for agencies such as the transportation and forestry departments. "Every contract, we fall further and further behind," he said. "And we don't quite understand how this keeps happening to us."
A spokeswoman for the universities said much of the $100 million boost from lawmakers is going toward reducing leaps in tuition and covering higher costs of employee benefits.
Workers also say they've been disrespected at the bargaining sessions. "That is a key talking point that they have, and that is a way that they use to gain attention for their story," said Di Saunders, a spokeswoman for the universities. "We could also say exactly the same thing. The bargaining table is not always a very happy place."
The contract proposed by university executives is "disheartening," Stalley said — especially after union members lobbied state legislators this year for increases to the higher education budget. For instance, they say the cost of living increases offered are too low to keep pace with inflation.
Rob Fullmer, an IT specialist at Portland State University, said that the most recent contract's cost of living adjustment fell below the rate of inflation. "That just didn't cover my costs," Fullmer said. "So I saw my buying power go down last year."
The union wants a 3.75 percent increase for cost of living in 2019 and a 3.5 percent increase in 2020.
Fullmer, an IT professional who has a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering, acknowledges he's not the "poster child" for the effort to secure better wages for university workers. He cites colleagues who work in dining services or as office specialists who have to take second jobs, noting that about a quarter make so little money that they qualify for food stamps for a family of four.
"We are the lowest paid workers at the university," Fullmer said. "And for us to be offered wages in this next contract that don't keep pace with inflation is really tough."
Universities, meanwhile, say that the combined 12 percent increase for the next two years — 2.5 percent in a cost of living adjustment and 9.5 percent in "step" increases for satisfactory job performance — is a "fair offer."
Universities also are offering competitive health care and retirement benefits, Saunders said. She said universities already provide "the best benefits you can get on the West Coast, if not nationally."
Cooling off period
A strike isn't a sure bet. Union representatives say they want to avoid that by negotiating what they view as a better contract. "We work in higher ed because we want to be able to serve students and faculty, we want to be able to serve the higher educational mission, so striking is not something we're looking forward to doing," said Fullmer. "But if we don't get a reasonable and fair contract offer from management, they're basically forcing our hand. Striking is the only thing we can really do in order to ensure our workers get a contract that they can live with."
Friday, Aug. 23, is when the universities and unions officially submit their final and best offers for a contract. Then there's a 30-day cooling off period, at which point the universities may implement their final offer, which could prompt the workers to go on strike.
Negotiations could continue until workers and management reach an agreement.
The universities, meanwhile, are planning for a strike as students return for the fall term. They could re-assign non-classified staff, outsource workers or hire temporary employees.
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