PSU unions form bond

On Wednesday, April 11, representatives from the Oregon University System’s Chancellor’s office and the Oregon Public Employee’s Union (OPEU) met for the first time to begin negotiations on their contract renewal.

OPEU represents all classified employees, such as secretaries, cashiers, clerks and plumbers, at all state universities and colleges in Oregon. For the first time, however, OPEU has joined forces with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to form a powerful coalition.

While each of the three unions negotiate contracts separately, all are currently bargaining on the same calendar, meaning that if none of the unions come to a timely resolution all three could potentially strike at the same time. While Denise Duncan, President of OPEU Local 089, said that strikes are very rare, she nonetheless emphasized the importance of the coalition. “We have never joined up together, and just having the three groups standing up together is very powerful.”

Unlike AAUP and AFT, OPEU is on a four-year contract with an “automatic re-opener,” which means that half-way through the term wages and benefits are reexamined and each side is allowed to bring three articles from the existing contract to the table for renegotiation.

The chancellor’s office, represented by Pam Merrick and Cynthia Beckwith, has chosen to address layoff rights, union rights and union recognition. According to OPEU’s table representative, Brian O’Connell, the university is seeking to increase their options for contracting outside of the union for work, limit overtime pay to a 40-hour work week, and reexamine the layoff language.

According to Duncan, OPEU is concerned about the number of workers the university contracts out for, noting that the more work is contracted out to non-union members, the smaller their bargaining unit becomes. “There is power in numbers,” Duncan said. “This is a union campus; there’s no reason why it should not be done union.”

OPEU’s representatives, O’Connell and Terry Cavanaugh, also want to examine layoff language, in addition to recognition rights and union rights. OPEU hopes to ensure that the new university campus in Bend has union recognition and would like to secure the right to utilize the university e-mail system to contact union members, among other things.

It is not a coincidence that layoff language was selected by both sides of the discussion. “The fact that both sides brought layoff language to the table means that both sides are concerned about the possibility of layoffs,” O’Connell said.

Duncan reiterated that concern, stating, “We want to make sure we have good protection if that does happen.” In addition, the union is concerned about how layoffs could affect remaining employees’ overtime pay. If a layoff were to occur, O’Connell said, those employees still working can expect to work more overtime.

The university, however, wants to limit overtime benefits to those employees who have worked more than 40 hours in a work week, rather than the union-preferred eight-hour work day scale.

Another layoff concern is the way in which employees are recalled. According to Duncan, OPEU wants to open up the recall list and expand it so that employees can be placed on multiple recall lists for several classifications for which the employee is qualified. The chancellor’s office, however, does not want to see that happen.”Not only do they currently limit employees to one classification, but they want to further limit options to one department,” Duncan said.

Duncan also expressed hope that at some point student employees will be allowed union representation. “The university doesn’t allow students to work more than half-time because they would then have to provide benefits. Why shouldn’t they get sick leave and vacation benefits just like the co-worker they sit next to?” She added that “students need representation as much as anybody else.”

While each side is working to find relief in their three contract articles, the issues of wage increases and benefits will most likely not be discussed until early summer, when the governor’s budget is completed.

Duncan seemed to be hanging on to an optimistic attitude at this early stage: “We are working very hard to start off positively.” The recent bond between AAUP, AFT and OPEU has created an air of excitement and support for union members, as demonstrated by their energetic rally at the Portland State Urban Center that kicked off OPEU’s negotiations on April 11.

“I think it’s important to emphasize the power of the unions coming together on this,” Duncan said. “There’s a saying in the union: ‘When you take on one of us, you take on all of us.'” The unions intend to continue their newly formed coalition, supporting each other throughout all the contract negotiations and beyond.