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Hundreds of graduate student instructors at the University of Oregon exchanged teaching for picketing Tuesday as part of a strike over stalled negotiations on health benefits. 

The teaching assistants walked off the job during the last week of regular classes, just before final exams start next week and term papers are due. The strike comes after a year of negotiations between the administration and union members, whose previous contract expired in March. 

The Graduate Teaching Fellowship Federation was asking for a pay increase to bring wages closer to the cost of living in Eugene, as well as for better health benefits. They succeeded in one respect: the university has agreed to a 9 percent minimum salary increase split between the two years of the contract.

But the two sides still disagree over paid absences for medical and parental leave.

They also disagree on the effectiveness of the strike. While the university administration has said repeatedly that classes will go on and final grades will be tallied, the graduate student union says that’s simply not practical. Nearly 1,500 graduate students teach a third of all undergraduate classes. 

The union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, had been pushing for two weeks of paid leave each for illness or childbirth. Richard Wagner, a union member who’s been involved in the negotiations, said the union estimated it would cost about $52,000 a year to pay back the wages members would earn during those leaves, based on the relatively small numbers of graduate instructors who’ve been hospitalized or had a child in recent years. 

The university argues that it’s not quite so simple. Offering paid leave to graduate instructors leads to equity issues for the benefits of other part-time employees, and it would cost millions to offer uniform benefits to all part-time employees.

The two sides nearly agreed on a compromise after 43 hours of mediation that ended Monday. The university offered two weeks of flex time for certain qualifying needs and a $150,000 financial hardship fund, available to all graduate students. But when the union asked for a guarantee in the contract that graduate employees would automatically be approved to replace wages they missed while out for medical or family reasons, the university refused, Wagner said. 

“They basically said, ‘We promise to you we will make this fund, where we will control all the rules for it,’ ” Wagner said. 

Participation levels for the strike have been hard to narrow down. But the union had between 600 and 700 people signed up to participate in picketing throughout the day, Wagner said. Other members came to the picket line without signing up. 

Faculty members have been critical of the university’s plans to respond to the strike. The University Senate passed a motion opposing the administration’s efforts to plan for the strike in a way professors said undermined the faculty’s oversight of academics and watered down academic standards.  

Specifically, professors criticized an administration memo that recommended faculty members consider canceling final exams or changing tests to multiple choice to ease their end-of-term burdens without graduate students to handle grading.

The administration’s academic continuity plan isn’t much better, said Michael Dreiling, an associate professor of sociology and president of the university’s faculty union.  The plan also recommends modifying final exams to speed up grading, forgoing finals and giving students grades based on what they have now, or hiring people who haven’t taught the course to grade exams. 

“They decided to pursue a final-grade-at-any-cost approach,” he said. 

The plan provides faculty members with options, but decisions regarding specific approaches will be left to professors, university spokesman Tobin Klinger said. The university also pushed back the deadline for final grades to be submitted. 

Right now, administrators are focusing on monitoring courses to find out where there are absences from graduate instructors that need to be filled, Klinger said.

The faculty union has told members that, based on their contract, additional work assigned due to the strike would be considered overload, which is voluntary. Whether the additional work is reasonable or manageable will vary depending on individual faculty members, Dreiling said.

The effect of the strike also varies by department, said Monique Balbuena, an associate professor of literature and director of the Latin American Studies program.

In some cases, department heads could be placed as the “instructors of record” in 13 additional courses and overseeing as many as 900 additional students on paper. Other departments where graduate students don’t lead any classes may not feel any effect, she said. 

This is the first strike by teaching assistants in the union's 38 years on campus, and Balbuena questioned whether it was a coincidence that this is also the first time the administration has hired a third party, an outside law firm, to oversee negotiations.

Balbuena, who was a co-sponsor of the Senate motion, said she supports the graduate teaching fellows, whom she described as an important part of making the university work. 

"I cannot tell you how I would have negotiated, but once they collectively decided on this course of action, I don't feel comfortable crossing a picket line and engaging in strike-breaking behavior," Balbuena said.

Francesca Fontana, a student who’s been covering the negotiations for the campus newspaper, said it’s hard to know whether the majority of students support the strike. But some student groups, particularly the Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO) and the local chapter of the Student Labor Action Project, have been very vocal in their support of the graduate teaching fellows.

The ASUO, the student body government, issued a statement earlier in November that called the administration’s offer “paltry” and “insufficient.” It went on to say that any instability from the strike shouldn’t be blamed on the graduate instructors, but on the administration. “Yes, our classes will be interrupted by a strike, but in order for us to receive a quality education, we need to take care of our instructors,” the statement reads. 

Support for the graduate students has also come from United Academics, the faculty union, and the local branch of the Service Employees International Union.

At a rally Monday night, local politicians including the mayor, a city councilor and a country commissioner backed the graduate instructors and their contract requests. The impasse between the graduate student employees and administration over paid leave time comes just months after the city of Eugene mandated paid sick time for all employees, including those of private business. The university, as a state employer, is exempt. 

Wagner, of the graduate union, said the union hasn’t discussed an end date for the strike. Members are prepared to continue until the union has an acceptable agreement with the university written into the contract, not just promised, he said. 

Another mediation meeting is scheduled for Thursday.

Union members and their supporters have used what they call an ironic detail to campaign for their demands: Oregon Interim President Scott Coltrane is a sociologist who’s researched paid paternity leave. He has written a book and articles about how paid parental leave benefits parents and children, Wagner said. 

“To deny those rights to employees of the University of Oregon is very disappointing to us." 

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