When classes start on the seven campuses in the Oregon university system, next week, there’s a possibility that the incoming students won’t be the only new faces on campus. There may be thousands of temporary employees on campus if the Service Employees International Union employees go ahead with a proposed strike.
On Sept. 13, the SEIU issued an intent to strike notice, on account of faltering contract negotiations. The union seeks a minimum wage of $2,500 per month for all classified employees, as well as a $75 per month minimum for any raises to classified employee wages, according to Marc Nisenfeld, the chair of the SEIU Local 503′s bargaining team.
“We want no one to earn less than $2,500 a month,” Nisenfield said. Thirty percent of the SEIU members employed at the Oregon University System earn less than $2,495 per month, the level that qualifies a family of four to receive food stamps. The Oregon University System (OUS) bargaining team originally agreed to this provision, Nisenfeld said, although their final offer did not contain that provision. “If we don’t pay people a decent wage, we’re essentially paying them to collect food stamps,” Nisenfeld said. “Oregon taxpayers are subsidizing our members’ use of food stamps.”
The union seeks 2.5 percent cost of living increases in both years of the 2-year contract, while OUS is offering 1.5 percent the first year and 2 percent the second year, according to Di Saunders, Director of Communications for OUS.
While OUS representatives say the cost of living issue is settled, the issue of step increases for classified employees is still on the table, Nisenfeld said.
“When someone is hired on with OUS, they typically start at the lowest level – there are 10 steps, and within 10 years, an employee maxes out what they can earn,” Nisenfeld said. “We want the steps protected. They want to cut steps in half – to create 18 steps out of nine, and propose half-step increases. The contract is for two years and we want the full two steps.”
Nisenfeld said that the burden has been placed mostly on the shoulders of classified workers, it hasn’t been shared with administrators.
“Classified employees have endured cuts, furloughs and step freezes. None of these sacrifices have been shared by administrators. We want them to recognize that sacrifice and bring our members up to what they deserve.”
The union also hopes to address an imbalance of administrator to student ratios when compared to classified staff to student ratios.
“At Portland State University, the ratio of administrators to students has skyrocketed, while the classified and faculty ratios have dropped. The classified and faculty have day to day contact with students, yet the number of classified employees in the registrar’s office, financial aid and lab assistants has dropped dramatically,” Nisenfeld said.
Saunders said that both sides have agreed to meet with a mediator in hopes of reaching an agreement and avoiding the Sept. 30 strike. She noted that this type of situation is not unusual.
“This process takes place every two years and we get to the very end [of the contract negotiation period] every time,” Saunders said. “The sticking points are generally around wages and benefits.”
While student enrollment has increased over the past three decades, state funding of the Oregon University system has decreased. “Twenty years ago, students paid less than 30 percent of their college costs and the state funded 70 percent. Now, the state pays less than 30 percent. We’ve seen a complete flip-flop in 20 years,” Saunders said.
Larger universities get more revenue from tuition, but this contract covers all SEIU members at seven campuses, and must work for all campuses, Saunders said.
A bargaining session was held in Eugene, Ore., at the University of Oregon campus on Sept. 18, and Nisenfeld said that between 80 and 100 individuals occupied the university president’s office to show support for SEIU members. “It’s a fight, it’s a battle,” he said. But, support is there. He said that student governments at Portland State University (PSU) and the University of Oregon have offered letters of support, encouraging students to support the striking workers.
Strike plans in place on college campuses
University representatives at the University of Oregon and Portland State University (PSU) referred calls regarding this article to Saunders at OUS. Eastern Oregon University, however, offered comment on how the potential strike might affect their campus and the students there.
At Eastern Oregon University, a well-organized strike plan is in place to mitigate expected staff shortages. Classes will not be cancelled, said Tim Seydel, Vice President of Advancement and Admissions at Eastern Oregon University.
“Students should not notice a significant difference,” Seydel said. “There may be some unavoidable lines and delays as we look to help other students, but classes will still take place and meals will still be served.”
Saunders said that students would likely notice picket lines, and that campuses are planning for the strike. “We may have to redeploy staff and bring in temporary employees, but classes absolutely will not be cancelled,” Saunders said. “Student support will continue.”
The next round of bargaining is scheduled for Sept. 25, five days before workers may strike.
Oregon University System Members
- Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande, Oregon
- Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Oregon
- Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon
- Portland State University, in Portland, Oregon
- Southern Oregon University, in Ashland, Oregon
- University of Oregon, in Eugene, Oregon
- Western Oregon University, in Monmouth, Oregon