Published: February 23, 2024

Salem, OR – Higher education workers represented by SEIU Local 503 this morning declared impasse in negotiations with university management, after its failure to bring meaningful proposals to the table in bargaining.

Union members have been negotiating with university management since October of 2023. Inflation has continued to eat away at the ability for people to afford the basics, like rent and food, and the universities have not offered a cost-of-living increase that keeps up with the cost of inflation. Just like workers throughout our economy, university workers are going to their jobs and making less than they did a couple of years ago. The universities have failed to prioritize the workers who make sure the campuses run, the people that came to campus in person every day while so many others were able to work from home. Classified staff are the people who make sure that students have the resources to succeed.

SEIU 503 represents 4,500 higher education workers at Oregon’s seven universities: Portland State, University of Oregon (UO), Western Oregon, Southern Oregon, Eastern Oregon, Oregon Institute of Technology and Oregon State University.

“Our members love the university community where they work, and they should be supported in their jobs,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU Local 503. “We are disappointed that university management has yet to see the value in lifting up essential workers whose jobs are so important.”

Richard Keuneke, who works full time at Oregon State University in food service, says it’s hard to make ends meet on his $17.43 an hour pay. More than half of his wages go to rent, and his family’s income is low enough that they receive state assistance. Food service and custodial staff are the lowest paid workers on campus, and many earn so little, they are on food stamps and are unable to live in the communities where they work. The disparities between university presidents’ and athletic coach base salaries (they take home additional pay for housing and other benefits) compared to custodial workers is stark: Oregon State’s athletic director earns nearly $1 million, the university president makes $747,000, while custodians on average at Oregon’s public universities make just over $36,000.

“Our members need a raise, plain and simple, and one that reflects what we just experienced with inflation,” said Johnny Earl, custodial coordinator at the University of Oregon. “Our members are in desperate need – and they need some relief now. They should not have to rely on food banks and second jobs just to pay their bills.”

Sticking points in the negotiations include better cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) that enable workers to keep up with the cost of inflation and management’s insistence that language in the existing contract be watered down to allow universities to contract out Union jobs, and making sure union members have access to their union.

Bargaining with a mediator present is scheduled for Monday, February 26th at the University of Oregon in Eugene. If agreement is not reached then, the bargaining team may proceed to a strike vote, one step closer to an actual strike.

Higher education workers have the support of allies in the labor movement; Teamsters Joint Council 37 has publicly committed to supporting SEIU 503 members and not crossing picket lines if the situation escalates and members authorize a strike.


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