Graduate students at the University of Oregon are about to go on strike. A year ago, I talked on this blog about the faculty union’s effort to negotiate a fair contract. Because so many folks here and elsewhere put pressure on the administration, we helped get the faculty a good contract. Now we need to do stand in solidarity with the grad students. Joe Lowndes, who’s an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, wrote this guest post on the negotiations and impending strike. Read what he’s got to say—the administration really is urging full-time faculty to turn essay-based, lengthy final exams into multiple choice Scantron tests or simply to allow undergrads to forgo taking the exam altogether—and then make sure to write the folks he says to write and sign the petition he suggests we sign.
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After a year of failed negotiations, graduate employees at the University of Oregon are about to go out on strike.
The major point of contention is a demand by the graduate union—Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation—for two weeks paid leave for illness or childbirth.
This is an important struggle for graduate students, who carry an enormous teaching, grading and research load at the university. It is also an important struggle for the faculty, which the university seeks to press into service as strikebreakers. What we are seeing here is the kind of anti-labor tactics at which institutions of higher education across the US are becoming adept. At the same time we are seeing powerful solidarity between grad students, faculty and classified staff.
The GTFF demands are modest. Indeed, Eugene, where the University of Oregon is located, is mandating sick leave benefits for all workers across the city. But because university employees are exempted, the GTFF must bargain for them.
(An irony at the heart of this labor dispute is that the interim university president, Scott Coltrane, is a sociologist whose work is focused on family leave. He has been featured in The Atlantic, on NPR and was even at the White House last June to speak about the importance of parental leave policies. Such are the corporate institutional imperatives of universities today that his administration feels compelled to oppose such policies for graduate employees. )
Late last month a secret memorandum from senior administrators was circulated to deans and directors outlining a plan to break the strike by hiring scab labor and weakening academic standards for undergraduate education. Here are a few excerpts.
For the faculty who have a union the administration recommends they be conscripted as scabs like so:
It is generally understood that supervisors [i.e., chairs] can approach represented faculty [i.e., in the bargaining unit] and engage them in a dialogue about assisting for the duration of the strike. This assistance may include, but is not limited to: teaching, grading, or participating in the hiring of replacement workers.
Keep in mind that many of these full-timers who are to be “engaged in a dialogue” are not tenured.
For faculty who are not in the bargaining unit there’s this:
Similar to represented faculty, we will be seeking volunteers from among our unrepresented faculty ranks for coverage of work previously assigned to GTFs. Unlike represented faculty, there is no ambiguity as to whether departments can explicitly assign the work should the need arise. Again, every effort should be made to find volunteers to cover the work.
For a strike occurring on or after finals week, departments should have a plan in place for covering finals and grading that is performed by GTFs.1. Consider whether the final exam can be reformatted so that it can be graded easily (e.g., Scantron or multiple-choice). Please note that the reformatted final exams should have an equal level of rigor as originally planned.2. To provide proctor coverage for exams, please use the teaching function strategies above.3. Provide students with the following options:a. For go the final and take the grade they had going into the finalb. Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade) until such time that the finals can be graded
The Administration is lining up whatever labor it can find and has posted a pay scale for anyone who wants to scab. Seemingly willing to break the strike at any cost, the university is spending more on legal and consulting fees (not to mention scab pay) than it would cost to cover paid leave.
Fortunately, the administration’s designs have been met with enormous pushback.
First, a powerful resolution was passed by the University Senate titled “Opposition to Efforts by Academic Affairs to Dilute and Degrade Academic Standards in the Event of a Graduate Teaching Fellows Strike.”
Next, twelve department heads and program directors issued a public letter to senior administrators refusing to engage in strikebreaking activities on practical, pedagogical, and moral grounds, threatening to resign their administrative positions if forced to do so.
The graduate students have a number of allies on campus, including steadfast support from our faculty and classified staff unions that are standing steadfast with them. Nevertheless, this is going to be a hard fight for the graduate students, and they will of course bear the brunt of the strike when it happens.
The strike could yet be avoided if the university administration were to offer meaningful concessions. And for that they need more pressure.
You can help by emailing President Scott Coltrane at email@example.com and Provost Francis Bronet at firstname.lastname@example.org and urging them to settle with the GTFF.
You can also sign this petition:
We—the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Oregon and the community at large—express our strong support for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (the GTFF) in their current contractual negotiations with the University.
In light of the invaluable contribution GTFs make to the instruction and research missions of the University, we feel GTFs have earned a contract that provides them with fair compensation, respectful treatment, and the basic securities provided to other campus employee groups.
We demand that the University take seriously the GTFF’s bargaining proposals— a minimum wage that actually meets living expenses for graduate students in Eugene and paid parental and sick leave.
We stand beside the GTFF and call upon the University administration to take concrete and immediate steps, at the bargaining table and beyond, to provide GTFs with the fair wages, equitable benefits, and respectful working conditions they deserve.