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Oregon State University Employees Vote to Authorize a Strike Amid Heated Moment

Strikes are also planned at health care giant Kaiser Permanente and the Fred Meyer grocery chain.

Members of SEIU Local 503 are gathered at Oregon State University on September 12, 2019.

Over 95 percent of 5,000 classified workers at Oregon’s seven public universities voted to authorize a strike this week. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 503 announced the strike vote’s results Tuesday night and warned that if negotiations with university officials don’t yield “a fair agreement that respects workers” a strike will commence on Monday, September 30, at 7 am. Classified staff at Oregon’s public universities provide services like counseling, health care and library services and also provide clerical and technical support to students, faculty and administrators. As Oregon State University (OSU) graduate student Nick Fisher told Truthout this week, “Everything is going to fall apart if we don’t have our classified workers.”

Workers who support the potential strike say that while tuition at Oregon’s public universities has steadily increased, university administrators have continually “misplaced their priorities, choosing to focus on administrative bloat, athletics and capital construction projects over good jobs and affordable education.”

Meanwhile, 20,000 employees of the Fred Meyer grocery store chain in Oregon and Southwest Washington State voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike on August 24. Negotiations are ongoing, but the union cancelled all further contract extensions this week after workers reported that store management had harassed and intimidated them.

With workers employed by the health care giant Kaiser Permanente also poised to strike, Oregon has become a battleground between organized labor and employers who are determined to maintain the status quo.

Oregon State University Workers Strike

The strike authorization vote at OSU comes after university officials and SEIU local 503 reached an impasse last week, with management refusing to meet one of the union’s core demands: a compensation package that is comparable to what other state employees receive. In a report released by SEIU, scientist and researcher Daniel Morris contends that, while state funding for public universities in Oregon has reached record levels, Oregon’s public universities have remained reliant on low-wage jobs while failing to provide an affordable education to students. An estimated 648 full-time workers make less than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s eligibility threshold for a family of four. Meanwhile, the university’s net position — what would be referred to as its net worth in the private sector — has increased 3 percent since 2016, now totaling $2.2 billion.

According to the report, “Presidents of Oregon’s largest public universities are paid more than $600,000 a year, more than six times as much as Oregon’s governor,” while “four university coaches have a base salary of $1 million or more.” In 2018, Oregon’s state university presidents were paid an average of $513,484 — more than 11 times what the average classified worker was paid. University employees say there is “room to chop at the top,” and argue that with state funding for public universities reaching record levels, workers should see a greater share of those funds.

A fact sheet released by SEIU Local 503 states that, “Oregon public universities report 5.43 workers per supervisor. By way of comparison, Oregon’s state agencies averaged 9.84 workers per supervisor in December 2017.” According to the fact sheet, “Lower ratios are a sign of administrative bloat and indicate opportunities to save costs by cutting overhead.”

Tyrone Russ, an IT professional at the OSU, told Truthout in an interview this week that university employees “are simply asking for what is fair and to keep us at pace with the cost of living.”

Louie Vidmar, the president of SEIU SubLocal 085 at the University of Oregon, which represents 1,600 classified workers, echoed Russ’s sentiments, telling Truthout, “The cost of living adjustments don’t add up.” As rent hikes and everyday living expenses increase with time, and wages fail to keep up, Vidmar says the pay rate the university is offering “actually represents a five percent cut over the course of the contract.”

Russ said the disparities point to a larger, fundamental question: “Why aren’t they willing to work with us to give us a standard of living that’s acceptable?”

Fred Meyer Employees See a Gender Wage Gap

Meanwhile, Fred Meyer grocery store employees who have voted to authorize a strike, face similar problems. Grocery workers are grossly underpaid in general, forcing many full-time workers to rely on food stamps, according to United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 555, which represents the Fred Meyer grocery employees. Some members of Local 555 experience homelessness. Fred Meyer is part of Kroger Company, the largest supermarket chain in the country.

Additionally, an independent study released by the union highlights a gender pay gap that unionized employees say Fred Meyer must address. Women employees who have employment contracts with Fred Meyer have a median pay rate of $13.50 per hour, while the median pay for men with contract jobs is $17.20 per hour. According to the study, women employees who have contracts with the company have “nearly identical” levels of seniority, experience and full-time status in comparison to men who work on contract in the company’s stores.

An Energized Moment for Labor

Meanwhile, 80,000 employees of Kaiser Permanente — an insurance and health care provider — including 4,500 workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington, are poised to go on strike on October 14 in what would be the largest U.S. strike since 1997. Workers represented by a coalition of unions argue that the company has deprioritized employee pay and the quality of care patients receive in favor of higher executive pay. They also cite concerns about job security — a common issue among union workers nationwide as the economy continues to shift toward part-time work.

With a spectrum of demands ranging from gender pay equity to tuition hikes, a fairer distribution of revenue, the pending strikes in Oregon represent concerns that students and workers across the country are grappling with. One tenth of 1 percent of wealthy Americans own more wealth than the bottom 80 percent combined, and with attacks on collective bargaining being waged across the country, longstanding labor tensions in the U.S. appear to have reached a boiling point.

Major strikes are brewing around the country. The Chicago Teachers Union has set a strike authorization vote for September 26 over wage issues and the city’s refusal to guarantee the presence of a nurse and librarian in every school. The union is also demanding more social workers in the city’s schools, but so far, the city’s newly elected mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has refused to budge. Meanwhile, 50,000 employees of General Motors (GM) went on strike Sunday night after declaring that GM employees had “helped rebuild General Motors when they were near extinction” and should be rewarded with high wages, better health care plans and greater job security.

U.S. workers are faced with a grim future unless they can successfully leverage their labor power and revitalize the labor movement. Could the current wave of strikes and tough negotiations fuel a reinvigorated era of labor organizing, or even lead to a general strike over issues like climate justice or health care? Only time will tell, but for now, the iron is hot and workers in Oregon are ready to strike.

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