By Brooke Snavely
Central Oregon Daily News
There’s only a month to go before students return to Oregon’s seven public universities. But labor negotiations with the union representing classified workers has reached an impasse.
Final offers from both sides were presented today to Oregon Employment Relations Board.
The bargaining parties now enter a required 30-day cooling off period. The next negotiations are scheduled Sept. 12-14, perilously close the start of fall term.
Classified workers at Oregon’s public universities include custodians, food service, information technology, nurses and other highly skilled positions. Their annual compensation, which includes pay plus benefits, ranges from $33,000 to $141,000 an average of $57,0000 a year across the board for their 5,000 members. The last year of the classified workers contract included a 1 percent cost of living increase which union representatives say isn’t keeping up with inflation.
“Our members are feeling like that the offers they are getting from management in this contract, which are comparable to what we saw in the last contract, aren’t enough to be able to make ends meet,” said Rob Fullmer, SEIU 503 representative.
“We are optimistic. We continue to be optimistic that we can find common ground that will serve both these valuable employees and avert a strike,” said Steve Clark, Vice President of University Relations for Oregon State University. “We need to find a common ground that not only serves our employees but also our financial ability to educate students of Oregon without causing cuts in operational expenditures and higher tuition.
The universities are offering eligible employees a combination of Cost of Living Adjustments and Step Increases totaling 12% over the next two years. The challenge is many union members already on the top steps of compensation scale aren’t eligible for step increases.
“I think there is a difference in amounts between what the union has requested and what the universities have offered,” Clark said. “That’s why negotiations occur is to understand the differences that are being put forth by the union and the universities. That’s why we negotiate.”
“When they talk about higher increases , called the step system, they’re really talking about the people who haven’t been at the universities long enough to be at the top of that system. 27% of our membership is topped out. I myself am topped out. I’ve been working at Portland State 14 years and I topped out some time ago. What that means is the only compensation increase we see is the cost of living increase and 1% COLA isn’t going to cut it,” Fullmer said.
The last contract between the Universities and classified workers settled hours before the deadline. Both sides say they don’t want a strike but also say they are prepared to do so if necessary.
The universities say the union’s current proposal would cost about $55 million over two years. That would consume more than half of the $100 million the state legislature recently gave the universities to reduce the impact of tuition increases, public employee pensions and health care costs.