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SOU preps for possible strike

Southern Oregon University leaders are preparing for the possibility of a strike of about 185 employees beginning Monday morning.

“We’re first of all very hopeful that a contract will be settled before Monday,” said Joe Mosely, spokesman for SOU. “If that doesn’t happen, the university will be open and fully operational, as far as covering for the employees who would be on strike.”

SEIU Local 503, the union representing thousands of classified staff at seven public universities across Oregon, plans to strike beginning 7 a.m. Monday, Sept. 30, if an agreement is not reached between it and the universities’ bargaining team.

A strike would mean employees working in a range of jobs from custodial to administrative and other support services would trade their positions for the picket line outside campus on the first day of fall classes at SOU.

This would be the first time that classified employees at public universities would strike in over 20 years, said Di Saunders, spokeswoman for the public universities.

Barbara Henson, an administrative assistant at SOU and sublocal vice president, called the process up until now, “disappointing.”

“We feel very unacknowledged for the work that we do and what we contribute to the running of the university,” she said. “We feel that getting a fair contract helps show the respect for the workers here and the work that we do.”

The universities and SEIU Local 503 are negotiating primarily over wage increases. SEIU wants a 6.25% cost-of-living increase built in over the next two years. The universities are offering 4.25%.

SEIU also wants to add an additional level to the top of the pay schedule, giving employees who have reached the top of the scale one more threshold.

Pay steps are benchmarks that boost workers’ pay based on years of experience and sometimes other factors.

In 2020, SEIU also wants to eliminate the lowest pay step. Classified employees are hired below their market rate, working their way up the pay steps toward the market rates.

Universities have countered by offering a one-time $850 bonus for employees who have reached the top of the pay scale.

More than 95% of members voted to authorize a strike at chapters across the state earlier this month. Since then, the two bargaining teams have met repeatedly this week.

Saunders and Mosely expressed their hope that a strike could be averted. Henson said she was less certain.

“My hope is we’ll reach a settlement, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen,” she said.

If workers strike, Mosely said, SOU is not planning to bring in temporary workers. Instead, he said nonclassified staff and other employees will “just pitch in and do their best to cover for what we hope will be a short-term situation.”

Food services are provided through a separate contract with a company, and services such as mail and counseling will continue as normal.

“We don’t view this as a contentious situation,” he said Friday in a text message. “It is an example of differences being resolved through respectful dialogue, and we hope it will be a constructive learning experience for students.”

Britney Sharp, president of the Associated Students of Southern Oregon University, said she has been working with the union and university to try to keep students informed of any potential impacts.

“There are many different takes on this topic across the student body from what I currently understand,” she wrote in an email. “Many students stand with SEIU, while many others also are just concerned about their resources being limited during the strike.”

SEIU has said that half of the workers who would strike Monday earn less than $40,000 per year. Hundreds earn less than $25,000 per year, and one in every six employees qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for a family of four, according to SEIU.

Saunders said last-minute negotiations are not uncommon, and the universities are hopeful a strike can be avoided.

“Both parties are very interested in settling before we get to the point of a strike,” she said. “It’s not to anyone’s benefit to get to a strike.”

The bargaining teams will continue to negotiate over the weekend.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.