To strike, or not to strike?
That is the question for Service Employees International Union, as bargaining agreements with Oregon University System for a new contract continue without arriving at a settlement. A looming strike slated for September 30 may become reality, which would be SEIU’s first in nearly 20 years.
So, who are the SEIU members?
“We’re the facilities people, research assistants, campus public safety officers, the nurses, the IT support, the groundskeepers…” said Marc Nisenfeld president of the local SEIU at Portland State and chair of the bargaining team.
“We’re pretty much everybody who keeps the place running.”
According to Nisenfeld, their failure to see eye to eye is boiling down to financial differences. He feels the whole campaign is getting nasty, and he’s alarmed at some of the OUS proposals being put on the table.
“For the past several years we’ve taken cuts, we’ve taken furloughs, we’ve taken pay freezes and other assortment of holds,” he said. “All the while, we kept getting promised that they could do so much better for us and the first chance they got they’re trying to do worse.”
Nisenfeld explained that each SEIU classification has a salary range with 10 steps. People start at the bottom and each year they’re guaranteed an increase to the next step until they reach the top.
“For each year, instead of a full step, they want to cut it in half and give half steps,” Nisenfeld said.
Even at the top, however, Nisenfeld feels that SEIU salaries are behind market pay. He said that the members depend on cost of living allowances to make ends meet, and OUS wants to cut those nearly in half.
“We say that’s unacceptable,” he said.
Although in a separate union, PSU faculty is showing support for SEIU. Mary King, professor of economics and president of the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, released the following statement:
“PSU faculty and students absolutely rely on the hard work and ingenuity of our colleagues represented by SEIU. The PSU-AAUP is in complete support of our PSU staff colleagues and call on the Oregon University System to recognize their critical contributions to public higher education and give them a fair contract.”
So why is OUS refusing to budge on its offer?
“Basically it’s really a matter of having a sustainable salary and compensation package that we can offer,” said Diane Saunders, director of communications for OUS.
“The state doesn’t give us state appropriations for salary increases.”
According to Saunders, it’s been many years since OUS has been given any additional state general funding for salary increases. She said that since a lot of the money would have to come out of student dollars, an increase in tuition would be forthcoming.
“The SEIU staff really does contribute to student success, and we recognize that,” Saunders said. “We want to work as hard as we can to give a fair and equitable package to them but we also have to be realistic about funding.”
Nisenfeld thinks OUS does have the money. He feels that SEIU’s needs could be met if OUS took a hard look at the budget, and without raising tuition at all.
“Our people are the ones who prepare the memos and put the numbers together and input data. We know the story,” Nisenfeld said. “We even came up with some creative ways to get some money and limit the staffing ratios and they won’t even talk to us about it.”
There is, however, one area which both OUS and SEIU find themselves in agreement. They both hope to avoid a strike if at all possible—but if the time comes they will be ready for it.
So what can students expect if the strike happens?
“Regardless of a strike, buildings will remain opened,” assured Scott Gallagher, director of communications at PSU. “[The strike] does not involve faculty. Classes will not be interrupted and operations will carry on as usual.”
Gallagher remained discreet about specifics of how a strike would be handled, but explained that if it looks like a strike is imminent, memos will be relayed to students with relevant information to avoid any potential disruptions to their academics.
A mediation meeting in Eugene last week did not result in a settlement, and they will meet again Wednesday for a last ditch effort to resolve their differences.
“We do not want to strike, but we’re committed,” Nisenfeld said. “The only tool we have is withholding our labor. If there’s nowhere to go… then we’ll have nowhere to go but out in the streets.”