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SOU workers, state at impasse

Now operating without a contract — and at an impasse in negotiations — Southern Oregon University classified workers say they've had enough of furlough days and sluggish pay.

"We feel the Oregon University System has asked classified workers to shoulder more of the burden than other workers," said Sophia Nielsen, Service Employees International Union representative at SOU.

Both sides recently declared an impasse. They are scheduled to submit final offers today. Gov. John Kitzhaber has set a 6 percent cap on increases in pay, benefits and cost of living raises, said Di Saunders, communications director for the OUS chancellor.

"We asked to reopen our collective contract (with OUS) when we saw that only classified workers — and not administration or faculty — are taking pay cuts," said Nielsen. "We don't want furloughs again. We have record enrollments at some universities, yet OUS says if there are no furloughs, there will be reductions in pay."

Saunders called it "totally a misstatement" that increased enrollment means more revenue.

"There's not more revenue. There's not a lot of money sitting around," Saunders said. "We have less now than we've ever had per student. We've been cut so significantly. We're 44th to 48th in the nation in revenues per student. We're not flush."

Belt-tightening for classified university employees in past years has been carried out primarily with salary reductions and unpaid furlough days. During this biennium, "it will be mostly on the benefit side," said Saunders, adding that if workers resist furlough days, "they'll have to give up something, such as step increases," which refers to the dollar amount between pay grades.

Last biennium, classified workers shouldered the burden of pay cuts at all universities, except SOU, where faculty and administration volunteered to sacrifice pay at the same rate as classified workers "because it was the fair thing to do," said Nielsen. "And we are very grateful."

If pay cuts fall only on classified workers this time, she added, "We're not willing to do that."

University employees bargain in two steps, the first being with the Department of Administrative Services. That step is completed and resulted in 10 to 14 furlough days, depending on pay rate, said Nielsen.

"For us not to have furlough days, OUS wants to take back everything we agreed to," said Nielsen. "They say we should give up 1.5 percent in pay or get furloughs. We're picking up 5 percent in (health) insurance premiums. We've never done that. In return, we get a 2.95 percent increase in pay for the biennium — and that's modest."

"We could go on strike easily," said Nielsen, who speaks for 200 workers at SOU. "No one wants that."

Saunders agreed, noting, "I hope it doesn't reach that point."

The two sides are slated to go into third-party mediation before the Employee Relations Board on Sept. 2.

OUS usually extends the old contract if parties go beyond the start of the new biennium on July 1, but this time did not, Nielsen said.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.