What you need to know about the Graduate Teaching Fellows strike at UO

By Chris Wig of Eugene, Oregon. Chris is a political organizer and mental health worker, serves as vice chair of the Democratic Party of Lane County, and earned his master's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.

Thousands of students from around the world choose to attend the University of Oregon—our state’s flagship university—because it’s a great place to learn the skills they need to participate in the 21st Century workforce. Apparently, it’s also a place where approximately 1,500 graduate teaching fellows (GTFs) work for less than a living wage without access to any paid sick leave.

And that’s about to change.

On December 2, a cold Tuesday morning, the GTFs declared a strike and took to the picket line after more than a year of intense negotiations with the university administration failed to produce a fair contract.

The crux of the disagreement is a familiar and controversial topic in Eugene—paid sick time. The GTFs have been negotiating for two weeks of paid sick and parental leave, while the administration countered by offering two weeks of “flex time,” which isn’t paid. The two sides almost reached an 11th hour compromise which would have placed $150,000 into a “graduate student hardship fund;” however university administrators were unwilling to write the fund into the GTFs contract, leading the GTFs to strike.

Ironically, the GTFs’ argument for paid sick and parental leave is based in no small part on research conducted by Dr. Scott Coltrane, who now serves as interim president of the university. In the December 2013 issue of The Atlantic, Coltrane wrote, “new policies should focus on wage replacement and ensuring fair treatment of parents in the workplace, regardless of gender,” and “any costs associated with taking paternal leave will be outweighed by potential gains.”

Throughout the first days of the strike, the GTFs have received a great deal of community support. Members of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon—the UO student government—and Student Labor Action project organized a “solidarity study-in” outside the university president’s office. Several elected officials spoke at the GTFs’ ‘Ready to Strike’ rally Monday night, including Majority Leader Val Hoyle, Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, Mayor Kitty Piercy and City Councilor Claire Syrett; Sen. Michael Dembrow joined the picket line on the second morning of the strike. Many members of labor and political organizations, including American Federation of Teachers, Oregon Education Association, Oregon AFL-CIO, SEIU Local 503 and Sublocal 085, United Academics, the Democratic Party of Lane County and University of Oregon College Democrats have joined the picket line or sent letters of support.

So what can you do to help the GTFs achieve a fair contract with paid sick and parental leave?

To learn more about the GTFs and the strike, check out the GTFF website and Facebook page. For a solid overview of events leading up to the strike, read this article at Inside Higher Ed. You can find by far the most comprehensive coverage of the strike—complete with primary source documents—at the UO Matters blog.

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