OSU and Graduate Employees Union Impasse Continues

For almost a year now, the Coalition of Graduate Employees and Oregon State University have been locked in labor negotiations, debating changes that will affect not only graduate employees, but OSU – and by extension, Corvallis as a whole. Matters have turned tense at times.  

Earlier this year, a group of union members interrupted a lecture by Provost Ed Feser, demanding that he sign a petition favoring their “Chop From the Top” initiative.  

The initiative advocates for cutting OSU’s largest salaries and reinvesting them into supporting lower income jobs at the university, as well as a tuition freeze and the appointment of a new Board of Trustees whose members would be “impacted by university decisions, as well as representative of the real multi-racial and multi-gender working-class who make up the majority of OSU.”  

Feser declined signing the document, and later sent out an email detailing why the university believes it cannot meet the union’s demands. In the email, Feser’s main concern was the scale of the changes.  

“CGE has presented the University with economic proposals related to salaries, benefits and other requirements,” said Feser. “The University estimates that the requests would increase OSU’s expenditures by $45.0 to $54.4 million beginning next year and that most of the requests result in continuing increased annual expenditures. For context, the University anticipates a total increase of $20 million in education and general funding this coming year for the Corvallis campus.”  

What graduate employees do:Graduate employees play a variety of roles within OSU’s academic ecosystem. They help professors with administrative duties, run labs, conduct research, and teach undergraduate courses.  

Each employee works part-time for OSU while pursuing their degrees. By contract, no graduate employee may claim payment for work hours greater than 49 percent of Full-Time Equivalent  which is equivalent to around 20 work hours per week.  

What they’re paid: According to co-lead of CGE negotiations Emalydia Flenory, most graduate students make anywhere from $900 to $2000 per month – which is consistent with what OSU lists as their wages.  

This would mean that individuals earning minimum wage part-time could make as much as a graduate employee at the bottom of the FTE scale, while someone working full-time for minimum wage could make as much as a graduate employee at the top of the scale, and without the need for a bachelor’s degree or the debt that usually comes with it.  

While the main methods of interaction between the CGE and OSU have been through bargaining sessions, community members likely know the coalition more through their public demonstrations.  

What the union wants: “We’re pushing for a more holistic university model with our bargaining,” said Erin Abernathy, a fellow CGE negotiations co-lead. “The changes that we want are aimed towards giving all students at OSU a better academic experience, not just graduate employees.”  

“For example, OSU’s grown immensely in a short time, which is great!” Abernathy continued. “However, it’s hard to keep up with how many students are coming through. A lot of grad employees find themselves working way more hours than they’re contracted to, in order to provide a good learning experience for our undergraduate students. We’d like to have that hard work reflected in our contracts.”  

A few notable proposals from the CGE relating to salary are:  

  • 12 month-long assistant contracts for all graduates, regardless of whether it is a teaching or research-based appointment, as opposed to the usual nine month working contract. Graduate assistants would be able to work throughout all four academic terms, instead of only three. 
  • An increase in minimum monthly salary by 18.6 percent. 
  • A $300/mo subsidy for each graduate employee who lives off campus.  

Other areas of note are those of sick leave and family leave. For sick leave, the CGE is advocating for a greater rate of sick hour accrual, rollover sick hours between assistantship appointments, and a broadening of what sick leave may be used for. This includes the employee and family members experiencing mental or physical illness, parental leave within 18 months of a birth, leaving to foster a child, bereavement leave within 90 days of the death of a family member, or leave to seek legal services.  

For context, graduate employees accrue sick hours per term, and it is determined by how much the employee works, with a maximum of ten hours accrued if an employee is working at 49 percent FTE. The CGE proposed that the rate of accrual should be more than doubled, though this was struck down by OSU, who instead proposed an increase by two hours. The final agreement is still being negotiated.  

As for family leave, the CGE has been pushing for up to six months of family leave at 100 percent salary. Qualifying events would include the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child. The CGE has also focused on ensuring that employees taking family leave will not see their assistantships decreased or terminated while they are gone, and that said employees will be restored to their former positions upon returning.  

Many of the proposals here have been struck down by OSU, with the university offering up alternatives not yet satisfactory to the union.  

The University’s stance: “OSU believes salary, benefits and tuition waivers that the university provides graduate assistants are highly competitive with peer research institutions that OSU compares to,” said Steve Clark, Vice President of University Relations & Marketing, and OSU’s union spokesperson.  

Regarding graduate employee salaries, Flenory sent us the following information, which shows the expected earnings of a graduate employee working at 49 percent FTE:  

Pre-tax Real Income (.49 FTE) 

OSU: $1867/month 

Washington State University: $1979/month 

University of Oregon: $1989/month (At the Teaching Assistant II position) 

University of California: $2041/month 

California State University: $2179/month 

University of Washington: $2388/month  

Living expenses should also be considered here, as living in LA or Seattle would certainly be more expensive than in Eugene or Corvallis. These numbers fall in line with Feser’s email, and are also corroborated by the graduate employee contracts of these universities. 

What people are saying: OSU is a large operation, and the CGE is one of three unions operating on campus. UAOSU, the university’s faculty union, gave us the following statement:  

“The Coalition of Graduate Employees is an integral and irreplaceable part of the OSU community. The United Academics of OSU stand in solidarity with them in their fight for fair compensation, healthcare, and family leave. We hope that OSU administration can reach an agreement that properly values the contributions of graduate employees so that we can all focus our collective efforts on getting through the current public health crisis together.”  

We were also able to reach out to some graduate and undergraduate students for their thoughts on the matter:  

“I pay my union dues and definitely support my peers in this,” said an anonymous graduate employee, “but I have to admit that it’s not really a black and white sort of thing. I come from a poor community, so getting to work and study for a wage is really nice – at least compared to other jobs that would have been available to me.”  

“I’m really grateful for the graduate employees on campus!” said another anonymous undergraduate student. “It really seems like a lot of students take grad employees for granted. The ones I’ve met have all been super helpful, and I wouldn’t have done so well in certain classes without them.”  

While the quarantine has closed down OSU campus, the CGE reports that graduate employees haven’t seen any cuts to their working hours. Though many events have been cancelled, both groups have begun to host online events.  

Both parties have moved their bargaining sessions online, with hopes of reaching a satisfactory agreement by the end of spring term, in order to ratify a new contract by fall of this year.  

More details about the graduate employee labor negotiations can be found at the CGE’s website and OSU’s bargaining page, respectively.  

Upcoming CGE events can be found at their Facebook page, and OSU’s events can be found on their event calendar.  

The CGE also conducts public events and community aid efforts such as the Mutual Aid Caucus and Hardship Fund, both of which are efforts from the CGE to give support to graduate employees in times of need.  

By Thomas Nguyen