University workers call off strike

Eugene, OR – In a startling last-minute reversal yesterday, workers at several Oregon universities called off a strike set to begin on Monday. A statement released in the early morning hours by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents the classified employees at all seven campuses in the Oregon University System (OUS), explained that administration officials had given ground on all of the most contentious proposals they have held to without budging since earlier this year, rendering a strike unnecessary.

The strike, authorized by a vote of SEIU’s membership two weeks ago, was set to begin on Monday, September 30th, the first day of fall term classes. At the University of Oregon, the OUS flagship campus, the strike was supported by a broad coalition of university community members, including other campus labor unions such as the United Academics (faculty) and Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (graduate employees), as well as student organizations like the Student Labor Action Project and the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, the official student government at the University.

SEIU and OUS had been deadlocked over economic proposals since May. The administration demanded another round of pay freezes for classified staff and asserted the need for further furlough days, when workers are sent home without pay. This proposal amounted to a pay cut for classified workers, amid administrator raises, increasing tuition, and booming enrollment.

Perhaps most contentiously, OUS sought to slash classified worker “steps,” the yearly wage increase received by those workers as they gain experience, from five to 2.5 percent, meaning a classified worker would have taken fully 18 years to reach their full earning potential with the University system-a long time in a bargaining unit where more than a quarter of workers earn so little they qualify for food stamps.

In a marathon bargaining session that ran into yesterday morning, OUS suddenly gave ground on all of these issues, offering a 3.5 percent raise over the next two years, as well as promising an end to furlough days and maintaining the “steps” until 2015. This sweeping success for SEIU at the bargaining table is almost certainly due to the credible threat of a strike, which has set all seven OUS campuses abuzz in recent weeks.

“These folks work some of the lowest paying and often least appreciated jobs on campus,” said Sam Dodders-Katz, president of the ASUO, in a statement last Thursday supporting the strike. “They deserve a contract that treats them with dignity, respect and most importantly fairness.” This unqualified statement of support from the student government helped persuade SEIU to delay the strike, which was originally scheduled to begin on Monday, September 23rd, for a full week.

The additional time did not go to waste. The University of Oregon Campus Labor Council, founded last spring following the formation of the faculty union, faced its first collective action, organizing faculty and graduate employees in support of the classified workers. Faculty members promised to hold classes off campus and, when possible, release graduate employees under their supervision from responsibilities that would require crossing a picket line, allowing them to support picket lines directly in a way that would not be possible otherwise.

Members of the Student Labor Action Project, a student group supporting unions on campus, organized undergraduate students for a mass leafleting of campus residence halls scheduled for Thursday the 26th, as well as signing up students to participate in a rolling sit-in in OUS offices. “Students can do things and take risks [workers] can’t,” said Joanna Stewart, co-chair of SLAP, at a meeting of undergraduate labor allies Tuesday night.

Although these actions were not necessary in the end, the tight collaboration between students, faculty, and staff had a decisive effect on the atmosphere at the bargaining table.

“I really believe that it was the coalition [of students, faculty, and staff] that had an impact on bargaining,” said Chuck Theobald, a member of SEIU’s bargaining committee. “It was a new thing, and it really turned things around.”

Photo: NW Labor Press