University staff across Oregon are fighting though one of the most difficult contract negotiations in years. Unlike their counterparts at State agencies, administrators at the seven public universities have refused to offer us fair raises and benefits. While many of them receive six figure salaries (four even make a cool seven figures), they leave a large number of classified staff with less than living wages. The economy is strong and Higher Ed funding is at a record high. It is time for change. That is why employees across all campuses are pledging to strike if the time comes.
A strike is a “last resort” decision when negotiations fail to reach a fair conclusion. For many of us, this will be the first time we have ever been on strike.
“The classified staff at the universities are about to go on strike because we are not being given a fair contract offer by the administration,” says Tanner Thompson, an SEIU 503 member and custodian at Oregon State University. “We are the people who make the universities run, and the administration is taking the money from the state revenue and putting it into their own pockets. A lot of classified staff can qualify for food stamps, while the administrators take home six and seven figure salaries.”
What is a Strike?
A strike is when workers withhold their labor, effectively rendering their workplace unable to continue without them. While management and employers tend to hold most of the money and resources, the employees who make a workplace function have the people. We do the work that makes the university system possible, and so when management treats us as though we do not matter, we remind them we do matter by taking a bit of our power back. By walking out on strike we reclaim the strength we have when we act collectively through our union, and it is the strongest tool we have to push management to do the right thing.
Strikes are the last resort for a union bargaining a contract, and if management refuses to make fair concessions in the negotiating process then the employees can decide to walk away and strike as a way of exerting pressure. Striking only works as a negotiating tactic if most of the employees are on board, which is why employees are signing strike pledge cards right now. If negotiations continue to be stalled then a strike vote will be issued and members can decide if they want to authorize a strike.
If we do vote to strike in September, then employees will be voluntarily walking off the job for a set period of time. Management cannot retaliate against workers for going on strike, it is considered “concerted” union activity and against the law to discipline or fire workers for it. There is a large strike fund in the union’s treasury to help employees who want to strike, and arrangements are made by the union to help striking members recoup financial hardship that may result.
A strike is called by a majority vote. Each and every worker will have to make the choice about whether or not they will stand with their coworkers on the picket line. A strike is only successful if we come together in collective strength and it is critically important that we stand together during this process.
We understand a lot is on the line for employees when they are walking the picket line, but a lot is on the line in contract negotiations as well. Management wants to keep wages low, keep you below market rate, and undermine the protections you enjoy at work as part of a union. The quality of your job is in question right now. So when we join together as a union and choose to join a strike, we are doing everything possible to save our workplaces.
Strikes do not happen in isolation. Employees will be working with a whole range of supporters. We are already working with student groups and other unions on campus, and making the ask that they will not cross the picket line. This means that they will respect that the strike is happening and refuse to enter places where workers are striking and will not do work that is normally performed by the classified staff taking their union action. Community groups from around the state will also be signing community support petitions, and politicians from across Oregon will be speaking out. We are a strong unit and Oregon supports us.
There are three primary ways that a person can get this kind of support if they are on strike. The first is through a picket stipend of $400 per week to help fill the gaps lost if they go on strike for more than seven days. The second is the hardship fund mentioned above, which will address bigger issues that a member faces because of the strike period, such as missed bills. The third will be an additional Hardship Fund that is specific to sub-locals, adding to the number of financial resources that members will have access to.
The goal is to keep the strike as short as possible, and what we can expect is that once a strike begins, management will rush to return to the table to negotiate and get people back to work.
Striking is the Last Resort
The bargaining team recently reached an impasse in their negotiations with management, with the administration refusing to present respectful offers that value classified staff. They want to keep wages low, the opposite of what State workers got on their recent contract.
“The best way to avoid a strike is to be ready to strike,” said bargaining team chair Rob Fulmer, of Portland State University.
To raise your voice and support your team you should make sure to sign a strike pledge here. This just means that you commit to joining the strike if it is authorized, but a strike vote will not happen until September .
If you are a community member, or have friends on campus or in surrounding communities, have them sign this petition to show their support. We need to stay connected with our larger community, our success depends on this.