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University workers want a fair deal

I am the president of SEIU 503 Sublocal 84 that represents nearly 200 classified workers (non-faculty) at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Our parent union, SEIU 503, represents around 4,500 workers at all seven public universities in Oregon. We are custodians, technology workers, office specialists, campus public safety officers, nurses, plumbers, and collectively we are all public servants. We are your neighbors, taxpayers, and concerned citizens who want to see our local communities prosper.

Union representation is at an all-time low in our country, which is a shame because unions empower their members to negotiate better wages and benefits with employers. Even if you are not covered by a union yourself, the presence of a strong union in your local community gives you leverage to negotiate for better compensation from your own employer because the union contract forces them to compete.

Our union is currently in negotiations with the seven public universities in Oregon to determine our wages, benefits and other rights in the workplace for the next two years and beyond. Presently, the universities are proposing takeaways that would cripple our members’ future earnings.

We rely on annual cost-of-living adjustments to protect our wages from inflation. In the past five years, inflation has been between 2.5% and 3% consistently. Over the past two years, we have received 1% adjustments, and the universities want to maintain that status quo. They also want to skip a cost-of-living adjustment entirely in 2019. Worse than that, they want to cut our performance raises in half and stretch them out over a much longer time frame so that it will now take a newly hired employee 19 years to reach their maximum salary instead of 10 years.

This is already a low-wage workforce. Statewide, 1,485 university workers earned less than $2,177 per month (which is about $12.58/hour) in 2018, the income threshold for SNAP eligibility for a household of three. The average for all university workers statewide is $36,136 per year.

The universities have told us they need to implement these changes to save money, yet SOU has given out considerably better raises to faculty (4%), administrators (3%) and the president of our university (13%) this year. We feel betrayed because our union worked with university administrators earlier this year to convince Salem to allocate $100 million more to the public universities’ budgets. If the universities have the money to invest in faculty and administrators this year, then they have the money to invest in their lowest-paid workers.

Come this September, our bargaining teams will reach the point of final offers. If the offer from the universities does not significantly improve, our union will be considering a strike. We hope it does not come to that, but if it does, we hope that you will honk your car horns and otherwise show us your support if you see us picketing along Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland. At a time when wealth inequality is at an all-time high, our fight for a fair contract transcends our specific circumstances. We believe that the universities exist to provide affordable education and good jobs to our community. Right now, they are failing on both counts. Some of that is due to a lack of investment from the state, which we are always trying to change in Salem, but administrative bloat and the tendency to cut from the bottom rather than from the top is certainly not helping the university system or our local economies.

Your support could help us fix that.

David Raco is president of SEIU 503 Sublocal 84 at Southern Oregon University.