The stereotypical idea of a labor dispute often involves blue-collar workers, such as factory employees or agricultural laborers. The truth, however, is that struggles for employment rights occur in varying contexts and at many different socioeconomic levels. A perfect example of this is the fact that one of the biggest ongoing labor problems in the state pits the professors at the University of Oregon against the University’s administration.
As the Register-Guard reported a few weeks ago, the University of Oregon professors and instructors, as well as their supporters, have been holding rallies in support of their union representatives in ongoing contract negotiations with the university. The professors and instructors, who filed for union certification in the spring of 2012, are represented by a nine-person faculty bargaining team that has been meeting with University of Oregon administrators every other week since late last year. Among the most important issues in dispute between the faculty and the administration include salaries, retirement benefits, and health insurance.
The University’s administrators have long acknowledged that UO’s professors and other instructors are not paid at the same level as similarly placed faculty at comparable institutions. As Professor Peter Keyes, an associate professor in architecture who also serves as a union spokesman, noted, some of the professors have not received a pay raise in four or five years.
Faculty Proposals vs. Administration’s Proposals
The labor side – the professors and instructors – have proposed across-the-board raises of 7.5% over three years. They have also requested funds for merit raises and catch-up pay for individual faculty members who earn significantly lower salaries than what would be considered average in their fields. The salary increases proposed would cost the University of Oregon about $26 million. In addition, given that the Oregon Legislature is considering significant reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), the union is asking the University’s management to make up for any reductions in retirement benefits that the state might impose.
For its part, the university administration has offered a 4.5% across-the-board raise over three years, in addition to the funds for merit pay, which would cost about $14 million. Furthermore, the administration has not directly refused the union’s demands regarding PERS benefits – given that the any such measure would depend on actions that the Legislature has not yet taken – but an administration representative, School of Journalism and Communication Dean Tim Gleason, indicates that acceding to the union on that point might not make fiscal sense for the university.
Faculty Wants More of a Say in the Running of the University
The dispute between the faculty and the administration goes beyond just a numbers issue regarding salary and benefits. One of the main issues slowing down the negotiations is a dispute about word usage – the administration insists on being referred to as the “university,” while the faculty insists that they are negotiating with the administration, and that “the university” is comprised of both the administration and the faculty. While this might seem like a minor point, it speaks to the faculty’s sense of ownership over the university and the desire to have more of a say in how the University is run. Furthermore, the faculty is frustrated by the fact that, despite ‘relentless’ tuition increases, none of the additional money coming into the university has gone toward instruction. They see it as a sign that the University is not prioritizing quality education or properly valuing faculty contributions to the University.
While the administration at the University has been talking about boosting faculty pay levels for almost twenty-five years, it is only after the instructors made the move to unionize last year that real negotiations began to turn those promises into reality. The faculty at the UO provide an instructive example of how labor organizing can be helpful at every level for employees to fight for what they believe they deserve. If you believe that your employer is shortchanging you in any way, please contact one of our attorneys, who can help you fight for your rights.