I Really Love My University, Which Is Why I'm Going on Strike
December 5, 2014 9:34 AM   Subscribe

For the first time in its 39-year history, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation of the University of Oregon is on strike, and here's why .

Graduate Teaching Fellows (GTFs) comprise most teaching, research, and administrative graduate assistantships at U of O. Around 45% of the university's 3600 graduate students hold GTF positions, with workloads ranging from .20 to .49 FTE, and roughly one third of all classes are taught by GTFs .

The GTF union's strike kicked off with a rally Monday night, started officially Tuesday morning, and is now entering day 4. Mediation is set to continue this morning at 11 am. Undergraduates are stressed out because today marks the last instructional day of fall term, and final exams are still scheduled for next week. Last week, a confidential academic planning memo (pdf) from the administration for possible methods for coping with the strike was leaked, including proposals such as hiring scabs, rewriting exams to be multiple-choice and computer-gradable, forcing adjuncts and hiring undergraduates to grade exams, or even allowing students to forgo taking exams altogether and receive their current grades. These plans were quickly rejected by the faculty University Senate, who subsequently resolved to establish a "Task Force on Academic Integrity" to prevent further "dilution and degradation of academic standards" and to "restore trust and confidence". Meanwhile, many of the school's composition instructors have called for more "ethical discourse" in contract negotiations, and some bloggers see the labor dispute as a case study for the problems with the current structure of graduate education in the US (see comments).

Negotiations have been going on for over a year, with the most recent collective bargaining agreement (pdf) expiring in April. The two remaining points of disagreement are wages and paid leave. The GTFF is fighting for larger wage increases so that minimum GTF wages will more quickly approach the university's stated cost of living in Eugene, and they're also demanding paid medical and parental leave (somewhat ironically, the current interim president Dr. Scott Coltrane is a sociologist whose research interests include paternal and parental leave). The two sides are currently looking at a proposal to provide a hardship fund accessible to all graduate students rather than paid leave for just GTFs. The administration wants to put only the existence and size of the fund in the bargaining agreement (with details of the fund in a memorandum of understanding), while the GTFF wants more detailed, enforceable language in the CBA itself .

The GTFF is getting support from both the tenure-track and adjunct professors (who together organized into the United Academics union last year) and the classified staff (SEIU local 503); both unions have no-strike clauses in their current contracts preventing sympathy strikes. However, due to local Teamsters refusing to cross picket lines, Sanipac is not collecting garbage and UPS is not delivering packages on campus. The Associated Students of the University of Oregon student government and the UO branch of the Student Labor Action Project are also supporting the GTFs, with protesting students locked out of administrative offices (though not evicted from the building) Thursday following a "solidarity study-in" on Wednesday.

You can get the union side from the GTFF website and the administration line from the Around the O news bulletin. As you would expect, this is a big story for the Daily Emerald student newspaper, though it's vying for column space with the Oregon football team's run to today's Pac-12 Championship game . Local newspaper The Register-Guard is also heavily covering the strike. For the most discussion, rumors, and snarky summaries, however, the go-to source is Oregon economist Bill Harbaugh's UO Matters blog .
posted by bassooner (32 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
As a graduate student whose university is currently attempting to cut the number of TAships available pretty drastically, I will be watching this with intense interest.
posted by sciatrix at 9:40 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

This semester marks the first time that TAs at my university have been covered under a current contract in the last five years. The negotiations began in 2009, and we finally got a contract this September. I'm delighted that some stipend increases are being implemented retroactively in the '09-'16 contract. But, over the last year the university has made harsh cuts to the number of semesters that a student is allowed to TA - and that's caused a lot of trouble for a lot of students who can't possibly finish in that amount of time and are scrambling to try to find additional funding.

I'll be keeping a close eye on this.
posted by pemberkins at 9:53 AM on December 5, 2014

Have there been any significant wins by grad student strikes in recent years? There was organizing towards a union (with a threatened strike as part of it) when I was in grad school but the university did a successful divide and conquer by (falsely) convincing the science and engineering TAs that the unionization would mean lowering their fellowships to match what the humanities TAs earned, and by quite directly telling the international students that it would threaten their support from professors towards jobs and visas. It wasn't true at all but it worked and the vote failed.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:54 AM on December 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Okay, making a longer comment now that I've had a chance to sit down and read some of these articles:

The Meghan Emery post is right fucking on. I effectively work full time, and just because my compensation is technically linked to the 20 hours of teaching I'm expected to do per week--well, that CERTAINLY doesn't . I could be fired or removed from my program if my research wasn't up to par, and she points out that my teaching skills (at the time I joined my program, nonexistant) weren't why I got hired either.

I've actually had faculty members email my program unsolicited to tell us that we shouldn't complain about our salaries, because we "only" work 20 hours a week. Which: screw you! I wasn't complaining about my (honestly reasonable) salary before, but I certainly felt like complaining about it after that. It's really common for graduate students to think of themselves as full time professionals, which is certainly how we are expected to behave and work by our supervisors and labs, while faculty or outsiders think of us as glorified undergrads. It's frequently very irritating.

The tuition waiver thing is completely bullshit. When I started my program, we were required to pay the tax on our tuition waivers. Now, in order to have a teaching assistantship, we're required to sign up for 9 credit-hours per spring or fall semester and 3 credit-hours in the summer, so about 3 classes and 1 class respectively. We're charged tuition on that, but we get waivers for it. Generally, past your third year you're taking almost no classes, and in my first two years I never took more than two. The ones that I had--well, there was one that abruptly stopped meeting two weeks into the semester (apparently a course on grantwriting = "I will read over your grants and send you comments", which frankly my PI did better without being a class). I make up the difference with the same kind of bullshit "research hours" that the author of that piece describes. Anyway, having to pay tax on that tuition waiver used to mean that I got charged $1200 at the beginning of every single semester, which I'd get some unknown, opaque amount of back two months later.

For the record, I make about $2000 per month, and that's partly because my generous department gives me a little something extra over the pay my college mandates. $1200 fees are more than half my salary, and it's really, really hard to come up with that money on short notice. Especially when you are fresh out of undergrad, just moved cross-country, and have zero savings--did I say they asked us for this thing in the first month of every semester? Thankfully, my department has since opted to pick up the tab on that, but it's left me with a very, very cynical view of tuition waivers.
posted by sciatrix at 10:04 AM on December 5, 2014 [14 favorites]

Good luck, GTFF.

I was at the University of Michigan through two contract negotiations, which included several jobs actions. At the same time Yale crushed its TA union. This is fraught stuff.
posted by doctornemo at 10:05 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a member of SEIU local 503 here at the U of O, and while I can't speak for my union as a whole, I am very, very proud of the GTFF. Every time I walk past a group chanting with their signs and their loud, strong, yet respectful voices, I just want to run up and hug them (and join them, which we may only do on our own time, lest we risk the appearance of sympathy strike, as mentioned above).

I'm very curious about the Teamster thing, given that our 8ish press operators in the Printing Services department are Teamsters, I wonder what their contract allows for.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 10:12 AM on December 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Looks like their 2011-13 agreement didn't Allow for work stoppage or slowdown. Which makes sense. Not sure why I would have thought otherwise.
Glad to hear about UPS and Sanipac.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 10:20 AM on December 5, 2014

Also it says to in the first post. Which I was too excited to read more closely. Shutting up now.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 10:21 AM on December 5, 2014

My wife just finished her PhD at the UofO (in Geography) after getting her masters at Northern Arizona and she was paid better and had far better working conditions at the UofO largely due to the union. That being said, it was a huge work load while still teaching and doing research and if I didn't have a good stable job (civil engineer at a local municipality) and the skills to take care of a household (cooking, cleaning, etc) and support from her parents it wouldn't have been possible. I don't know which side to land on on this particular issue-I only got my BS in civil engineering and was never a grad student.

Grad students work really hard and are, defacto, auxiliary faculty. They are generally not treated accordingly, are taken advantage of, and their status is shaky enough they can't do much about it.

Also, after her experience and seeing the lives of her professors, she really, really doesn't want to continue the publish or perish lifestyle and all the associated bs of being a professor.
posted by bartonlong at 10:23 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine is one of the GTFF's officers, so I've been following this all along.

Thing one, buried in one of the links it might be mentioned, but I will highlight that the amount of actual money they're talking about is really small, about 0.4% of the budget for a not-at-all-poor university. This is very obviously about power on the side of the University.

Thing two, an Oregon Public Radio interview between UO President Scott Coltrane, and GTFF 5344's own Jon LaRochelle, which just aired a couple of days ago.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 10:32 AM on December 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

As a graduate student whose university is currently attempting to cut the number of TAships available pretty drastically, I will be watching this with intense interest.

When I worked on staff at my grad. student labor union, someone crunched the numbers and determined that "adjunct faculty" were cheaper teachers than grad. students.

The role of the grad. student at the US university is fundamentally this: if a department has grad. students it is a "research" department , if it doesn't it is a "service" or teaching department. Grad. students are a benefit to be doled out to faculty. Right now, vicious battles are underway in Dean's offices across the country as universities seek to reclassify grant-negative departments as service departments (or cut them altogether) and remove university support for faculty research.

Unfortunately, the real cost of being a grad. student isn't the low salary, but a huge cost in time and opportunity. As a job, being a grad. student is temp labor. You work for finite period, usually between 5 and 10 years and then your employment is terminated permanently. That 5-10 period is the time when most professionals in other jobs establish their careers. The university *faculty* gets to have very motivated, eventually highly skilled research workers, and then disposes of them to be replaced with less skilled workers. However, whether you maintain employment in academia after receiving your terminal degree is fundamentally up to that cartel of faculty in a very secretive process.

What is hard to come to terms with is this: that those faculty whom you admire, trust and hope to learn from are participating in a system which is exploitative and increasingly so. The class whose material interests are most in conflict with grad. students isn't "the university" but the faculty you directly work for. This is truly hard to accept.

I don't think it really hit home for me until I was involved (as union rep. for my department outside of my staff job) in a dispute involving departmental policy that required double the teaching responsibilities for the same pay, for certain classes of students. It was quite an eye-opener to meet with assistant department head and be told that we were "children" for bringing this issue up.

The faculty and administration are used to playing good cop/bad cop with the grad. students. Again, the most important issues are power over departmental policy and issues of freedom wrt research advisors (foreign students are exploited *hard* by PIs because they hold power over their VISAs), the money and benefits are ultimately a distraction.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:48 AM on December 5, 2014 [23 favorites]

Well, at least they are in show business.....
posted by thelonius at 11:10 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

the tenure-track and adjunct professors (who together organized into the United Academics union last year) and the classified staff (SEIU local 503); both unions have no-strike clauses in their current contracts

Wow, what's this horseshit? A contract with a no-strike clause? Who agreed to that? Why would you negotiate away your most powerful weapon, your right to collectively withdraw labor? What would happen if they did stage a "sympathy strike"?
posted by Jimbob at 11:29 AM on December 5, 2014

The big state schools are almost always near the 50,000 students mark. This means 3, 4, or 500 students in the required and intro courses over the first two years. This usually works out to a large one hour lecture class once a week with the professor, then two smaller classes with 30-40 students twice week with a grad student/TA.

So it's the grad students who often do most of the teaching, grading, student interaction, etc.

When I was a grad student back in the 90s, the total package of "compensation" barely allowed us to get by...and I couldn't have done it without incurring even more student loan debt.

So...not sure what to think here. Sure, I got some valuable experience teaching and the university got some cheap labor. But then, I think it's the undergrads who get the raw deal here (some inexperienced TA instead of the professor).
posted by CrowGoat at 11:34 AM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Jimbob- Almost every collective bargaining agreement contains a no-strike clause. The clause usually says that the union will not strike for the duration of the contract, except in the case of Unfair Labor Practices. Most strikes (also known as economic strikes) take place when the contract has expired, or a first contract has not yet been achieved. Here's an argument against unions accepting no-strike clauses, but for now this is absolutely standard.
posted by cushie at 11:40 AM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Aah now that I've woken up a bit that makes much more sense, although I still personally feel the right to withdraw labor is paramount.
posted by Jimbob at 11:56 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's worth pulling out this (from the Crooked Timber link):



posted by migrantology at 12:08 PM on December 5, 2014 [13 favorites]

Wow, what's this horseshit? A contract with a no-strike clause? Who agreed to that?

In my union, the grad. students were classified as "state workers" forbidden from striking. Hooray for US labor law! !
posted by ennui.bz at 12:13 PM on December 5, 2014


I really respect GTF for asking not just for maternity leave, but for parental leave.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:19 PM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]




Is grad school the right time to have kids, though? Shouldn't you wait until... no, post-docs aren't allowed to do that either... um, neither are adjunct faculty... it would probably get you rejected for tenure as a new professor... I know! As a tenured faculty member! Then you can have kids! Except, not biologically, because you're probably too old.

In all seriousness, if you are mentoring someone and you want them to be back in your lab or classroom less than two weeks after they had a child, you are a truly deplorable person.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:21 PM on December 5, 2014 [11 favorites]

I really respect GTF for asking not just for maternity leave, but for parental leave.

Good catch, good point, I stand corrected and more-than-slightly embarrassed
posted by migrantology at 12:32 PM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some thoughts on the subject, as it has been a conversational topic around town the last couple of days.

* There appears to be a disconnect as to how the GTF members think of themselves and how the Administration/University thinks of them.
The grad students position seems to be 'I work 40+ hours week at my duties, which include teaching, but also research and other educational tasks. I should be compensated as such'
The Administration position appears to be 'You are a student. You have a part-time job that allows you to be a student. You are compensated as such'

* The UofO has brought in an outside law firm to conduct negotiations. This outside team has taken a much harder line than previous negotiators associated with the University.

* The University has been caught numerous times playing fast and loose with public records laws. This is an ongoing problem with the administration and shows their intention not to arrive at an equitable solution.

* Is the new independent board of trustees attempting to set a tough baseline for future negotiations with the other unions?

* It is "unfortunate" that the strike did not happen earlier in the football seasons. There are no more home games. It would have been quiet amusing to see the University scramble to televise ESPN with the teamsters, IBEW and other unions refusing to cross picket lines.

Finally, if you want to see the crowd, check out the webcam.
It's pretty small right now, was bigger earlier.
posted by madajb at 12:45 PM on December 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am a graduate student at a university that is very likely cutting the number of TAs quite drastically. In Hawaii, it is currently AGAINST THE LAW for us to unionize, so in the face of wide-sweeping mid-semester cuts (sprung on us at a time that left zero recourse for basically everyone affected) that would have left us completely unsupported in whatever action we decided to take. We rallied, marched, and staged a sit-in that managed to convince administration (despite their statements that it wasn't us: it was us) not to cut positions for the next semester, but our overall future is still very uncertain. I'm pulling hard for these UofO grads.
posted by deadbilly at 2:42 PM on December 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The problem is that grad students are there and gone and do not have long time vested interest in the school the guild ie Union for many full timers is a up..and they too often are reluctant to support even full timers.

I am old enough to have taught when schools were judged by ratio of tenured teachers, full timers etc and since then more and more adjuncts at grad assts used to cut costs at same time as tuition shoots up...why? More and moe additions to administrative payroll
posted by Postroad at 4:54 PM on December 5, 2014

Fantastic post, bassooner! As a graduate of the UO and an active labor union member, with a partner who teaches at the UO (and fully supports the GTFF), I'm very proud of the grad students and the various union locals that refuse to cross the picket lines. As mentioned, Sani-Pac and UPS aren't crossing, and many construction workers involved with various of projects on UO's campus are also refusing to cross the lines. It's so heartening and moving to witness the strength of unions when they work together to support one another. What the GTFF is asking for is entirely reasonable and fair. The administration is acting shamefully. No doubt, they are looking toward the contract bargaining coming up for the newly formed United Academics in the very near future, and trying very carefully not to agree to anything they'll be beholden to later. Why Coltrane et al can't determine that setting a precedent of fairness and respect for all their employees would be a good thing is frustratingly beyond me.
posted by but no cigar at 4:55 PM on December 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Coltrane's in an awkward position as interim president, after the last few left after only a few years each. Even if he wanted to agree to some of the terms, he likely faces dismissal if the terms are unfavorable, and as interim there's probably not a strong severance policy other than possibly falling back to professor of sociology.

And for U of O, it's a pretty unsteady situation overall, as the Oregon University System is dissolving and the unis are moving towards becoming more independent. Previously tuition rates were set by an OUS committee, but things will change when OUS dissolves in July. If U of O wanted to raise tutition, having the community colleges bound to OUS agree rates would have been useful. But it's a complicated matter.
posted by pwnguin at 6:44 PM on December 5, 2014

As a member of the UConn grad union bargaining team, I think that the GTFF strike has already had a salubrious effect on or negotiations. Thanks, U of O! Yesterday they nearly agreed that we should have job descriptions in advance of starting them each semester!
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 7:21 AM on December 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I recently finished up my Graduate degree at UO and have been following the strike closely (many of my friends are GTFs at the university). What the GTFF is asking for is nothing outrageous...a small wage increase (most departments pay over the minimum wage set out in the contract, but some do not) and some more medical benefits (a couple of weeks paternal leave and sick leave). The city of Eugene recently passed an ordinance requiring paid sick leave, so the GTFF is trying to get the UO to comply.

This strike has been a long time coming, the first vote to strike took place earlier this year so this was not a surprise to anyone. There has been numerous letters exchanged between the administration and the departments on campus. It is hard enough that the University crams as many people as possible into one class just to enable enrollment numbers to increase. The burden of teaching many of these large classes falls on the GTFs. My first major class as a solo instructor had 198 students enrolled...boy was that an eye opening experience. Just like many other academic institutions across the US, the rigorous standards that used to be apart of earning an undergraduate degree are starting to fall by the wayside at the UO. This strike is also causing the administration to ease back on academic standards which irritates the heck out of me. I worked hard to earn each of my degrees, but I hate the fact that standards are starting to lower because it cheapens an undergraduate degree.

Here is a letter that went out to the UO community discussing what some of the university responses have been:

"United Academics of the University of Oregon
Breaking News (Corrected):

For several days, the University of Oregon has been embroiled in a strike by the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, composed of graduate employees who teach courses in their own right or assist professors in large courses.

Today, the University of Oregon administration escalated its tactics against the striking graduate employees that will have profoundly negative implications for undergraduates.

The College of Arts and Sciences decreed unilaterally that final examinations and end-of-term assignments will be optional in graduate-assisted courses taught in the Departments of Linguistics, Philosophy, and Ethnic Studies.

If the GTFF strike continues after Dec. 12, the Associate Dean for Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences will assign all grades in the affected courses, based on only a portion of the graded assignments and tests listed in course syllabi. In the Department of Philosophy, the department head and all graduate instructors have been removed as instructors of record. More departments may suffer a similar fate.

This course of action threatens to damage the mentorship between teachers and students, relations of trust among colleagues, and between the university community and the administration. It also interferes with the ability of teachers to do what they do best: to educate students. This harms students who hoped to improve their grades with end-of-term writing assignments and final examinations.

The apparent goal of this attack is to break the GTFF and not, as the administration insists, to maintain “academic continuity.”

Every effort by faculty members and the university senate to deal with the problem of assigning grades during the strike in a manner that upholds the professional integrity of teachers and the expectations set out in course syllabi has been rejected.

Furthermore, because the administration has declared final examinations to be optional, grades will not have the same value for all students.

Such callous disregard for academic freedom and the welfare of students forces faculty and students between a rock and a hard place. Rather than work with faculty to create meaningful options for grades to be delayed, the administration has chosen to compromise the integrity of undergraduate education at the University of Oregon."
posted by Humboldtwm at 5:24 PM on December 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

The city of Eugene recently passed an ordinance requiring paid sick leave, so the GTFF is trying to get the UO to comply.

FYI, the sick leave ordinance specifically excludes employees of the State (and all its subdivisions).
I don't know the specific details of how UO workers are classified, but I don't believe the ordinance would apply to them.
posted by madajb at 2:25 PM on December 7, 2014

madajb: "FYI, the sick leave ordinance specifically excludes employees of the State (and all its subdivisions).
I don't know the specific details of how UO workers are classified, but I don't believe the ordinance would apply to them.

State University employees are state employees. We get 457b retirement plans, OPERS pensions, and plenty of state employee regulations. Which means the highest paid public employee is a college football coach. And speaking about jobs university presidents don't want organized, football players probably rank highly on that list.
posted by pwnguin at 5:03 PM on December 7, 2014

State University employees are state employees

Yeah, I kinda figured, I just didn't want to make the assertion without being sure.
posted by madajb at 12:37 PM on December 8, 2014

update: Strike ends with the agreement to create a 7 member committee to manage the emergency assistance fund.
posted by pwnguin at 8:37 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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