University of Oregon’s Graduate Student Teachers Go On Strike As Contract Negotiations Stall

The University of Oregon experienced the first day of a strike orchestrated by the Graduate Teaching Fellowship Federation in the hopes of garnering a better benefits package. The graduate student teachers at the university are picketing during the last week of school before final exams end the term next week  and in an attempt to make a bold statement.

This is a first strike for the Graduate Teaching Fellowship Federation and it comes on the heels of a year long stalemate between teaching assistants and UO’s new Board of Trustees over higher wages and health benefits. Picketers are demanding pay that is closer to the cost of living and paid absences for medical needs, parental leave or family emergencies.

There was a minor success on behalf of the Graduate Teaching Fellowship Federation as the board conceded to a 9% salary increase that will be divided between the union members two year contracts. There still has yet to be any head way made on the demands for paid absences, though.

Richard Wagner is a member of the student teacher union and is involved in the negotiations with UO. He said that the requested two weeks of medical or childbirth leave will cost around $52,000 a year. This figure includes paying back each student teacher in the small pool currently employed at the university and the union even took into account the small amount who actually utilized similar benefits in the past few years.

UO doesn’t feel that the issue is that cut and dry, however, as they cite the need to take other part time employees are taken into account and the need for equal treatment. The university states that the cost to grant equal benefits to all employees is too high and likely in the millions of dollars.

The final straw spurring graduate teachers to strike, came on Monday after 43 hours of negotiations that nearly ended in an agreement when UO presented a $150,000 financial hardship fund to graduate student union members. When asked for clarification and a guarantee that students would indeed be able to supplement any lost wages due to illness, childbirth or family emergencies without delay, UO officials denied the request. Mediation ended at this point and plans to walkout of classes to picket commenced.

Wagner said, “They basically said ‘We promise to you we will make this fund, where we will control all of the rules for it.”

This last thwarted attempt to come to an agreement, ultimately led to Tuesday’s picketing around 10 of the university’s buildings. While the exact number of student teachers involved in the strike are hard to pinpoint, around 600 signed up to participate in the picketing throughout the day and many other union members who did not sign up were in attendance as well.

University officials are not too pleased with the decision to go on strike so close to final exams and term paper submissions, as interim President Scott Coltrane said on Tuesday. “We’re really worried. We don’t want students to miss out on getting a graduation in the next term or qualifying for financial aid, we we’re working to make sure there’s (staffing) coverage for all the classes,” he said.

Student teachers are planning to picket with their signs in hand on Wednesday and Thursday, but have already agreed to a sit down meeting towards the end of the week with UO bargainers per the request of Janet Gillman, a state Oregon mediator. Where the strike goes from there lies completely in the hand of the UO Board of Trustees and their willingness to meet the union’s demands.

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