By 10:30, the time our 14th bargaining session with the OSU administration was scheduled to start, at least 70 people were packed into the MU Council Room, both to participate in the negotiations and to observe.  These were not all grad employees, either: 10 or 12 representatives of ASOSU, the student government here, also attended, wielding signs supporting CGE and our proposals.  With this throng engulfing the bargaining table on all sides, one was almost compelled to pity the OSU administration’s bargaining team, about to walk into these unfriendly surroundings to play their role as nemesis, their backs to be against the wall both figuratively and literally.  It was they, however, who put themselves in this position with their deplorable proposals and their often contemptible approach to bargaining.

Predictably, the administration immediately tried to escape bargaining in these surroundings.  Their lead negotiator, upon entering the room and without even sitting down, stated that unless enough of the observers left to meet the room’s capacity limit (40 people), they would not bargain.  Unfortunately for the administration, fate and our observers were against them: our friends from ASOSU had already cleared out a bigger room in the MU, and we moved there to commence bargaining.

In the new room, the administration did their best to avoid the crowd by positioning themselves with their backs to the audience and speaking quietly so as to be audible only to our bargaining team and the nearest observers.  Finally situated in the most comfortable position we would permit them, the administration set about offering us what they called a “supposal”—a “hypothetical” offer that they, as their lead negotiator explained, wouldn’t consider themselves to have made if we ended up in mediation.

Their supposal addressed both fees and stipend.  On fees, they “supposed” reducing the differential by the sum of the Technology and Registration Fees, which would be rolled into tuition along with the Engineering Resource Fee.  This move would bring the differential down from its current value of $300 per term to $184 per term, and given that less tax would be deducted from the differential, this would actually be a slight gain for everyone.  Under their supposal, other small fees, such as the Summer Session Tuition Base, which CGE has grieved several times and once successfully brought to arbitration, would be rolled into tuition.  As the result of this “hypothetical” movement on their part, individual grad employees would see no change in the overall cost of fees, with the reduced tax deduction from the differential and next year’s fee increase balancing each other out, and Engineers would see the additional benefit of having the Engineering Resource Fee rolled into tuition.  CGE would also be in a good position to continue to reduce the overall burden of fees, with the differential still in place for all grad employees and several fees rolled into tuition.

Unfortunately, the university continued their change of heart on the minimum stipend, refusing now to increase it even after proposing to do so in writing earlier in bargaining.  Instead, they “supposed” giving a 4% raise to everyone earning below the Graduate School’s recommended minimum of $3543/month at 1.0 FTE, but only upon reappointment.  In other words, given that new a grad employee could still start out being paid our current contractual minimum of $2811/month at 1.0 FTE for an entire year, that grad employee would have to remain on assistantship for seven years to reach the Graduate School’s recommended minimum under the administration’s supposal.

The administration is adamant about leaving the contractual minimum stipend unchanged.  Their outward rationale for this insistence is salary compression.  Specifically, they’ve claimed that raising the minimum stipend to the Graduate School’s recommendation would cause some grad employees to be paid more than some instructors, especially in the College of Liberal Arts.  This is true for a very small number of people, since a few of the worst paid instructors in CLA make about $3333/month at 1.0 FTE.  However, the administration also refused to acknowledge that a number does exist between the current contractual minimum and the Graduate School’s recommendation that would not result in salary compression.  It thus appears that the administration’s real motivation behind refusing to raise the minimum stipend is to ensure that incoming graduate employees can continue to serve as a cheap alternative even to instructors, especially in CLA.

Unfortunately, the current contractual minimum has been in place since 2006, and in the time since that minimum was enacted, the cost of living here in Corvallis has gone up significantly.  Indeed, since that time, the Graduate School’s recommended minimum has increased over $400/month at 1.0 FTE.  Simply put, it is time that we stop paying incoming grads with wages that were poor even in 2006.  All of the Department Chairs, Program Directors, Grad Coordinators, and School Directors we’ve talked to—the collection of whom represents a majority of the departments in the College of Liberal Arts as well as departments across other colleges, even those departments that pay their instructors very poorly—support our efforts to raise the minimum stipend.

For these reasons, our bargaining team responded to the administration’s supposal by suggesting that we meet one more time to work to find a number for the minimum stipend that avoids salary compression but also brings the worst paid grad employees’ wages to a more appropriate level for the second decade of the 21st century.  We also let them know that we were pleased to see movement on their part on the fee differential that meaningfully accounted for concerns we voiced about their previous proposals on fees, but we noted we could not reach any agreement on fees outside the context of an entire economic package.

The administration was not interested in continuing to negotiate, however, and informed us that they will request state-sponsored mediation.  Thus, our next bargaining session will likely occur with the parties in separate rooms and a mediator shuffling between us seeking to help us reach an agreement.  We are optimistic about mediation because we believe the mediator will see through the administration’s questionable arguments and will serve as a disinterested voice of reason to the administration.

The support we’ve received from grad employees and others throughout negotiations, especially the unprecedented turnout at this last session, is also heartening and strengthens our conviction that our members will do what it takes to impel the administration to reach a fair agreement with us.  While we are getting closer to that agreement, we all still have work to do, and our bargaining team will need the rest of the membership to continue their impressive support in the weeks ahead. So, be on the lookout for ways you can continue to help as we push to conclude these negotiations, which are now headed into mediation.