More than 150 classified workers and their supporters rallied at Oregon State University over the lunch hour on Thursday as negotiators for the state’s seven public universities and the Service Employees International Union worked to push past a logjam in stalled contract talks.
The group, many clad in purple SEIU T-shirts, marched two blocks from the Student Experience Center to the administration building, where they climbed the stairs to the sixth-floor executive suite, chanting “Chop from the top,” then trooped back downstairs to continue the rally in front of the building.
Rob Fullmer, the head of the union bargaining team, spoke directly to OSU Provost Ed Feser, who was watching the demonstration, arguing that economic times are good for the state’s public universities and urging him to accept the workers’ demands for better pay and benefits.
“We are asking for a contract that respects workers, and we are hoping you’ll step up and make that happen,” Fullmer said.
Feser addressed his response to classified employees in the crowd.
“We respect the work you do,” Feser said. “We’re hopeful we arrive at a contract soon.”
A number of other unions were represented at the rally, including United Academics of Oregon State University, which represents OSU faculty members and is negotiating its first contract; the Oregon Nurses Association, currently in contract talks with Corvallis-based Samaritan Health Services; and the OSU Coalition of Graduate Employees.
Speakers from each of those unions talked about the need for workers to stick together and offered their support for the SEIU cause.
Sounding a common theme, Amanda Granrud of United Academics said highly paid university administrators should share the wealth with employees in the lower ranks.
“What you’re asking for is a drop in the bucket of what seems to be a bottomless well that only they own the water rights to,” she said, to cheers from the audience.
SEIU Local 503 represents about 4,500 food service workers, janitors, library techs, office specialists and other nonfaculty staff members at universities around the state, including about 1,500 at Oregon State University. They have been working under a contract extension since their previous collective bargaining agreement expired on June 30.
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The union declared an impasse in contract talks on Aug. 16, with both sides presenting so-called final offers on Aug. 23.
The universities have proposed a 12% pay increase over the life of a two-year deal, including a cost-of-living adjustment of 2.5% and step increases of 9.5%.
But union leaders call the offer misleading, noting that many workers are already maxed out at the top step of their job classification and won’t see any step increases.
Talks resumed this week on OSU’s main campus in Corvallis, with the two sides planning to negotiate Wednesday-Friday.
Union leaders have said they’ll call for a strike if an acceptable agreement cannot be reached during the current round of talks.
Fullmer said a strike authorization vote could be held early next week. Under state law, at least 10 days must elapse after a strike vote before public employees can walk off the job. Fall term at OSU begins on Sept. 25.
Di Saunders, a spokeswoman for the coalition of public universities, said administrators are hopeful that a strike can be averted.
“We do feel optimistic we will be able to reach a contract settlement before it gets to the point of a strike,” she said.
“Both the SEIU and the university administrations, our top goal is that students succeed and have a good experience when they come back to school at the end of the month.”