Will SOU Staff Strike?
The last time that the union for non-faculty workers at Southern Oregon University went on strike was in 1995, but they are concerned about what they see as inequalities in wage increases—and, are at the brink of a strike. To understand how, why and if the strike will occur, the Rogue Valley Messenger asked a few questions from David Raco, President of SEIU 503 Sublocal 84 at Southern Oregon University.
SEIU 503 Sublocal 84 represents about 200 non-faculty workers at Southern Oregon University; custodians, campus public safety officers, food service workers, nurses, information technology specialists, office specialists, plumbers, accountants.
Rogue Valley Messenger: What is the state of union representation nationwide/in Oregon?
David Raco: In Oregon, 256,000 employees were represented by unions in 2018 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or about 14.7 percent of the workforce. Across the United States, 11.7 percent of employees are represented by a union. The union membership rate of public-sector workers (33.9 percent) is more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.4 percent). Over the past ten years, union representation has been in decline in Oregon and across the United States. In Oregon, union representation has declined from 18.5 percent of all employees in 2009 to 14.7 percent as of 2018.
This has been a tragedy for the working class in our country and in Oregon because unions have historically been the premiere check against wage stagnation and various forms of worker exploitation. Unions brought us the weekend, the eight-hour work day, and the concepts of paid sick leave, paid vacation, and paid overtime. Unions believe that personal dignity must extend into the workplace. That is why we exist, and that is why we fight for our members and for all members of the working class.
RVM:What is the current negotiation about?
DR: Every two years, typically, we renegotiate our contract with the seven public universities in Oregon to establish our wages, benefits, and other protections and obligations in the workplace for the duration of our next contract.
RVM:Why do you feel as if your union members are getting the short end of the stick?
DR: In our last contract, we accepted low cost of living adjustments to our salaries of 1 percent in 2017 and 1 percent in 2018 as a sign of good faith towards the universities during a time of financial hardship. The increase in the Consumer Price Index, the standard measure of inflation, has been above 2.5 percent for those years, so we have seen a reduction in our purchasing power over that period of time. This year, we are asking for a greater cost of living increase to offset that, but the universities want to give us no adjustment in 2019 and small adjustments well below 2.5 percent in 2020 and 2021, which would give us three more years of erosion of our purchasing power.
In addition to that, the universities want to delay our annual performance raises in 2021 by six months, which they are unlikely to address in a future contract to make our members whole again. The universities have been framing our performance raises to the public as though they were a straight bonus to our salaries, but what they neglect to mention when they state that they are offering us “over 9% in raises” in our next contract is that our starting salaries are below a competitive rate, and sometimes well below a living wage, and our performance raises are built right into our job offers to compensate for that. It’s a tradeoff: they save money on us upfront, and over time we work our way up to a decent wage with good benefits and job protections in the meantime.
When we are hired, we can see how our salaries will rise over time to a competitive rate before we accept the job, and the universities know exactly how much they need to budget each year to cover those increases because they are tabulated ahead of time. Those performance raises cap out after ten years of employment, so there is a ceiling built right into them, and the universities are being misleading when they imply that every employee stands to get those raises in our next contract. For our longest serving workers, the only raises they stand to receive are the meager cost of living adjustments that are supposed to protect their wages from being eroded by inflation. We all rely on our annual performance increases to bring us up to a competitive wage over time as we gain experience. Without those annual performance increases, many of our members face financial insecurity and little incentive to remain employed with the universities, which harms workers, faculty, and students in the long run.
We are not a wealthy workforce. In 2018, 1,500 of our members across the state made less than $12.58/hour, qualifying them for SNAP benefits for a family of three and other forms of public assistance. We believe that the universities have an obligation to do better than that for their lowest wage earners, and if they want to remain competitive with similar employers in the state such as Oregon Health and Science University and the various state agencies under the Department of Administrative Services, both of whom recently agreed to much better contracts with their unionized employees, the seven public universities must offer us a better deal.
RVM:How does the wage increases being offered differ from other SOU employees—faculty, administration?
DR: The universities, including Southern Oregon University, claim that they lack the funds to give us better raises than what they are offering, but at SOU, they have been giving administrators 3 percent cost of living adjustments consistently for years—and we’re talking about administrators who make $75,000 a year on average beginning on their date of hire. (By comparison, 60 percent of our members make less than $40,000 a year. Very few of us are making anywhere near what an average administrator makes when they are hired.) That’s way above what people are making for this area.
The president of SOU just received a 13 percent raise from our Board of Trustees so that she now makes $272,000 a year on top of her $15,000/year vehicle stipend, a free house in the hills of Ashland, and other perks. Across all seven universities, there are over 200 non-union employees, mostly administrators, who are earning more than $200,000 a year. I wonder if they ever have to make the kind of choices that the classified staff have to, like choosing between paying for life-saving medication and paying for rent, or taking a second job to save enough money for their own children to go to college.
Unionized faculty at SOU were given a 4 percent cost of living increase in 2019 in their recent contract, and they are guaranteed another 4 percent increase in 2021. We believe that was fair, and the union faculty at SOU agree with us that the proposal to classified staff that SOU is currently backing in our negotiations is insulting by comparison.
We just want what other groups on campus are receiving. It’s about fairness and respect. We are the only group that has to fight just to keep our purchasing power from decreasing. The universities’ bargaining team told us in May that they would improve their economic offer to us in a way that “reflects the value that the over 4,500 SEIU 503 members bring to our campuses, and ultimately to the educational experience of our students” if the state allocated more money to their budgets, which the state did earlier this year in large part due to the efforts of our union. We spent the first half of 2019 working with students, faculty, and university management to convince our legislators in Salem to allocate $100 million more to the universities’ budgets in order to keep tuition down without depressing wages. The universities allocated money for administrator and faculty raises before the extra allocation was even secured, and now they are saying that they don’t have the money to give us the same deal, and we believe that is a choice. Student tuition has already been set for the upcoming year. At this point, it’s about investing in frontline workers versus feeding the administrative bloat that has been sapping the universities’ budgets for years.
RVM:What would bring about a strike—and what do you see as the impact?
DR: Now that the university has refused to provide us with a viable offer, our bargaining team will call for a strike vote, at which time our members will vote on whether to authorize a strike. If a majority of our members vote for the strike because they agree that the universities are not treating us fairly, then we can strike after giving the universities 10 days notice.
The impact of a strike by our members would be crippling to the universities’ ability to function. It would be very difficult if not impossible for the universities to provide the services that students expect without us there to perform the work. The amount of office support work that enables classes to happen is staggering, and that is just one of the many vital services that we provide. Bathrooms, classrooms, and hallways need to be cleaned daily. The grounds need to be maintained. The technology services that power modern education necessitate support and training and must be constantly maintained. Every academic and administrative department on campus relies on accountants and purchasing specialists to help them manage their budgets and procure services and supplies. Without the classified staff who perform those necessary jobs, the machinery of a modern campus grinds to a halt. University administrators know that, yet they often treat us as an afterthought when it comes to their budgets.
We have been in contact with students and student government at SOU throughout the year, and they understand why we might need to go on strike in September. They appreciate that unions are a check against exploitation in the workplace, and they support us as we support them. Students pay for the majority of our salaries and our benefits in the form of tuition, and what we have heard from them is that they believe that they get what they pay for. They want us to be treated fairly at work so that we are incentivized to stay where we can provide them with the critical services they need. They also want to receive fair treatment themselves when they enter the workforce, and they know that unions play a vital role in ensuring that employers provide that fair treatment.
RVM:Is there a historical basis for a strike at SOU? If so, how did that resolve?
DR: The last time our union went on strike was in 1995. The strike lasted for seven days, and it resulted in a victory for our union when the state agreed to an improved contract.
We have been able to successfully avoid a strike since then, and we hope to do so again this year, but all options are on the table. What transpires in September is up to management at the seven public universities in Oregon. We believe that what we are asking for is fair, and we are prepared to fight for it.