One of the season's labor conflagrations has been extinguished.
In a late-night bargaining session ending this morning, a union representing nearly 4,500 employees at Oregon's public universities worked out a deal with administrators, it announced today, averting the possibility of a strike next week.
The Service Employees International Union Local 503 says the Oregon University System (OUS) met its demands part way—largely reinstating worker's yearly step raises and agreeing to cost-of-living increases of 1.5 and 2 percent over the two-year life of the contract. The union had been pushing for 2.5 percent increases.
"We moved everybody forward," said Marc Nisenfeld, a Portland State University development engineer who chairs the union's bargaining team. He had not been to bed since reaching the agreement at around 2:30 am.
The union had threatened to begin a strike on Monday—the first day of fall courses—if the contract wasn't hammered out. That won't happen, but it's likely similar impasses will mark contract negotiations well into the future. This was the second consecutive round of negotiations where the SEIU threatened to strike.
One big reason: The state's seven public universities have seen stark disinvestment in recent decades, meaning workers' expectations that they receive annual pay bumps are harder to satisfy. The portion of the state's general fund being kicked to public higher education reached a record low in the 2011-2013 budget. At the same time, the system's serving more students than ever. Enrollment has swelled by around 30,000 per year since 2000, and many of the costs have been passed on in the form of tuition.
The SEIU has long pointed to the salaries of university presidents and other administrators as fat to trim. Presidents pull in anywhere from $195,000 to more than $440,000 in taxpayer dollars each year, with some getting additional money from private university foundations. At the same time, some SEIU members qualify for food stamps. As I've pointed out, the OUS even expressed concerns during this year's negotiations about a union-proposed "wage floor" saying it "may result in loss of other valuable assistance, such as food stamp eligibility, or housing and child care subsidies."
By the way, if you're the type who likes the spectacle of union/employer acrimony, don't fret! Contentious contract negotiations at Portland Public Schools, Trimet, and the Portland Police Bureau are ongoing.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!