We are now celebrating a victory that was months, and years, in the making. Despite management’s initial, disrespectful offers, our bargaining team was able to win a great contract with real cost of living adjustments, no increases in healthcare rates, and a number of improvements to our working conditions.
“This is the best contract we have been able to negotiate in over a decade, despite very tough negotiations. And we pushed management much further than they expected to go,” says Rob Fullmer, the bargaining chair and an IT employee at Portland State University. The bargaining team has thrown its full support behind this new Tentative Agreement, urging a “yes” vote to secure our raises and new workplace conditions. “The critical thing to me, going into this negotiation, was to make sure that as many people as possible would be protected from inflation and get some actual gains in this contract…We got that for more than 95% of our members.”
The new agreement was reached at the last possible second, after twenty-two hours of negotiations and just hours before we were set to go on strike. By Friday night, September 27th, over 4,500 classified staff were preparing to strike on all seven of Oregon’s university campuses. This would have been the first time our Union went on strike in twenty-five years, and we were ready.
For years, the classified staff at Oregon’s public universities had been underpaid, particularly when compared to their public employees in the State. Oregon’s consumer price index far outpaced our wage growth, and management knew it.
In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers allocated an additional $100 million to higher education, and this, along with increased tuition and operating revenue, meant that the universities had the money to make up for years of stagnant wages. Management had different ideas. They wanted to further slash Cost of Living Adjustments, increase our out-of-pocket healthcare costs, double the time it takes to climb the step scale, and even triple the cost of shift meals for kitchen staff.
Enough was enough. On each campus, leaders in our Union began organizing mass actions to bring together the staff and supporters among the faculty, student body, and surrounding community. We held two dozen public rallies and marches, confronting campus leadership and raising the voices of the classified staff who make these universities run. Management continued to refuse to budge, and we were forced to prepare for a strike. By the time final negotiations rolled around, 95% of voting members had authorized the strike. The pressure worked.
“We won through tenacity and grit, and a healthy dose of community support,” says David Raco, the president of the Southern Oregon University sublocal. “We demanded what was fair for our members after years of taking sacrifices for the team. We sought support from our allies, we rallied our members, and we let management know that we were seriously ready to walk out until they were ready to talk to us as equals at the bargaining table.”
The bargaining team forced management move from draconian wage cuts, plus a huge increase to our healthcare costs, all the way to a 3% COLA retroactive to July of 2019, another 2.1% in 2020 and regular steps in each year of the contract. We also secured a 2.5% longevity differential for our longest-serving members, which is a major victory that paves the way for even better compensation for those workers in future contracts. We also won an additional 48 hours of inclement weather leave, which puts us in a much better situation if extreme weather affects our ability to get to work.
The bargaining team is united in support of this agreement.
“What affects me the most is seeing my coworkers, who are having struggling making ends meet on what they are paid, getting a significant pay increase and the difference that these changes are going to make in their lives,” says Rob Fullmer. “That really is what this is all about for me, seeing people who are topped out, who are making less than what you can live on, seeing them get a contract that is going to make a big difference in their lives.”
Now it is time to cast your ballot. E-voting began on Friday, October 4th, and will run until the 14th. After that, paper ballots will go out, and must be returned by the 30th.
“You should vote because this is your contract. Without member involvement, there would be no bargaining team and no movement on our campuses for better lives for ourselves and our families,” says David Raco, who is voting yes on ratifying this contract. “We are so fortunate to have a union and one that is as democratic as SEIU 503. As members, we have a say in the entire bargaining process from start to finish. That isn’t just a right; it is also a responsibility. We must not take our union or our contract for granted. Please sign up today and cast your vote.”
For our raises to become active as listed in the Tentative Agreement, the contract has to be ratified, otherwise we will be forced to return to the bargaining table. Your voice is critical here, so if you want these raises and workplace improvements make sure to cast your ballot.
“This is a win for the 4,500 workers who dedicate their lives to Oregon universities,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU Local 503. “Workers stuck together to demand a contract that respects the critical role they play in supporting our students and keeping our campuses running. Together, we fought back take-aways proposed by management on wages, health care, steps, and personal days, and won higher wages for all workers. This hard-fought victory is a testament to the strength and solidarity of Oregon’s front-line university workers.”