Final exams are approaching on college campuses across the country, and at the University of Oregon, school administrators are scrambling to prepare students, canceling and altering classes, and hiring temporary instructors.
That’s because, in the rainy college town of Eugene, Oregon, hundreds of educators are outside striking for paid sick and parental leave and fair wages, the result of a year-long negotiation process between a graduate employees’ union and the university administration, including its president, whose field of research is family sociology and who has published studies on the importance of paid family leave.
The educators that the school is hurrying to replace aren’t faculty, but graduate teaching fellows (GTFs), called graduate teaching assistants elsewhere. They are students seeking advanced degrees who are employed by the university in various ways, such as researchers, undergraduate teachers, and graders.
Fellows at the University of Oregon, represented by the union Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF), have this month left classrooms and labs for picket lines, demanding that the school raise wages and offer paid leave.
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The university offers no paid leave to graduate teaching fellows. A GTF’s monthly wages fall $200 below the cost of living, as calculated by the University’s own Financial Aid Office, according to the picketers.
In a video on the GTFF website, graduate teaching fellow Katie Jo LaRiviere explains why she supports paid family leave and a living wage:
Each of my two daughters…were born during fall terms. After each birth I returned to work on the following Monday. I did not have paid leave in either situation and my family could not afford a short paycheck, so I did not cancel any classes as a result of giving birth, and only missed one graduate seminar. I was having a baby that night.
When asking for living wage and a paid parental leave, I do not ask for things to be easy. Even with these benefits we will struggle to pay for childcare, my spouse’s student loans, rent, and groceries. Rather, with these benefits I ask to be treated fairly for the work I do for the students of this university. I ask, for other brand new parents, that they be treated humanely.
“I tirelessly and persistently worked my way into grad school, and I have fought to stay here so that I can try to give my son more than I was ever given,” says one woman, with her son in tow, in a video of GTFs explaining why they are going on strike. “Right now it feels like the university is pulling the rug out from under my feet. More than that, it is pulling the rug out from under my son. I am ready to strike because as a parent, as a GTF, and as a student, I have given so much to the university, and it breaks my heart that they are unwilling to give back.”
Fellows’ contribution to the university’s academic programs is not insignificant. Along with grading the undergraduate coursework, serving as teaching assistants, or as a lab or discussion section leaders, GTFs are often the sole instructor for a class, according to the university website.
Graduate students at the University of Oregon teach about one-third of all undergraduate courses, according to two sources, a GTF and a spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers who has worked closely on the issue in Oregon.
But the lack of paid leave and low wages makes doing their job difficult.
“When we get sick, or need surgery, or get in an accident, and our doctors tell us, ‘You need to take time off to heal,’ we can’t do that,” Richard Wagner, a physics graduate student and the vice president of communications for GTFF, told Rewire. “We risk losing wages and are forced to return back to work before we’re healthy, or when we have lack of sleep after having a child. [Paid leave and fair wages] are really a very important component of our mission, making sure not only that we are protected but that we have the ability to perform at our top effectiveness and produce world class research. But we aren’t getting the support we need.”
The striking, which started December 2, is the result of failed contract negotiations between the graduate teaching union, which represents some 1,500 GTFs, and university administration. The union and university administration started bargaining in November 2013, and were able to settle on all issues except for paid leave and increased wages.
After a year of tense back-and-forth exchanges, the GTFF voted to strike, calling on graduate employees to stop their work and start picketing until the administration agrees to provide two weeks of paid sick leave, along with two weeks of paid parental leave, and wages that reflect the cost of living in Eugene.
During the year of negotiations, the university’s president resigned, and Scott Coltrane was hired as interim president. Coltrane, who received a PhD in sociology, conducts research on paternity, stay-at-home fathers, and families, and has been an outspoken advocate of paid parental leave.
The university boasts of Coltrane’s work on paid leave, writing in a university blog post that “Coltrane believes paid paternity leave is better for men, women, and children and that more significant steps need to be taken toward paid leave for both parents.”
In an article for The Atlantic, Coltrane wrote about the findings of a study he conducted on paid parental leave (emphasis added):
Today’s jobs still seem designed for the 1950s, when one partner was the sole breadwinner and the other was fully devoted to caring for home and children. Based on that model, ideal workers are still expected to be totally committed to their careers with few obligations at home.
[…] Only a handful of US states currently have government-mandated paid leave for fathers, even though our culture as a whole is beginning to change…But even without programs as generous as those in Scandinavia, I suspect that any costs associated with taking parental leave will be outweighed by potential gains. … And corporations and governments, who want to see a more resilient and equal-opportunity work force, will realize it is in their best interests to help balance work and family obligations for everyone.
Still, the university under the leadership of Coltrane has not offered paid leave. Instead, it has offered a flex time program for GTFs, along with a financial hardship fund that will help GTFs financially in the case of a medical event, including the birth or adoption of a child. President Coltrane has said the administration has done its best to work with the graduate students at the negotiating table.
“The university believes strongly that flex time and a student assistance fund will best serve the medical and parental hardship needs of our graduate students,” he wrote in a message to the community. “Unfortunately, the GTFF remains focused on the concept of automatic paid leave.”
The university did not respond to interview requests from Rewire.
The United States has some of the worst paid-parental leave policies in the world, and is the only OECD member state that offers no paid maternity leave. Only three states, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, have paid parental leave policies.
And while it’s difficult to track, the lack of government-supported paid parental leave pushes the burden onto employers, many of whom still offer little to nothing in the way of leave for mothers, let alone fathers.
Asked about whether GTFF plans to continue protests, which attracted some 700 people last week, Wagner said they won’t stop until they get results. “Yes,” he said, “until the university comes to the table and is willing to discuss paid leave.”