To strike, or not to strike?

Protesting crowd

For those of you who are familiar with the goings-on at the University of Oregon, the GTFF 3544 (the union that approximately half of all UO graduate students belong to, particularly if they have teaching assignments) is currently on strike. This article from the Register-Guard does a fairly good job of explaining what’s going on in a nutshell.

However, after carefully thinking it over, I’ve made a decision not to participate in the strike, and I thought I’d try to articulate why.

First and foremost, I am not happy with the decision that the union made to prioritize two weeks of paid medical/maternity leave over a living wage increase. Apparently this decision was made at a general membership meeting (GMM) some months ago, and for those of us who were unable to attend, the rhetoric coming out of the meeting seemed to suggest that the attendees were vocally in favor of this arrangement. However, as it turns out (at least based on what I heard from friends who were in attendance), apparently the vote was much narrower than reported; the implication seemed to be that, had more people objected to the prioritization of leave over wage increases, the vote probably would’ve gone very differently. I have been disappointed in the lack of opportunity to express objections to this prioritization, and have frankly felt ignored by the GTFF’s leadership in that regard. I am certainly not the only GTF who feels this way.

The simple truth is that relatively few GTFs are likely to use paid leave. I searched high and low and couldn’t find any hard statistics on what usage looks like for organizations that do offer such a benefit (if you know where I might find these figures, please let me know), but logic suggests that the number would be extremely small–I’d guess only a few percent per year. Contrarily, a wage increase would positively benefit everyone, particularly when it is no secret that GTFs do not make a living wage that even meets the poverty line (the university’s position is that our tuition waivers should somehow count, though free schooling isn’t going to help you pay the bills). From the Eugene Weekly:

GTFs at the lowest levels make $553 a month and GTFs with the highest level of experience and working the maximum 19.5 hours a week allowed make $1,617 a month over a nine month period, according to the UO Graduate School. The UO estimates it costs $1,620 a month for a graduate to live in Eugene.

Closing that gap would seem infinitely more important to me than offering a benefit that few are likely to need, much less even utilize.

Beyond that, I simply felt that it would be unfair to leave my students–and the professor I’ve been assigned to work with this term–in a lurch. While I understand that the whole purpose of a strike is to cause disruption, I also know that student grades and outcomes are at stake here, as well. My students are, and have always been, my priority; I came to UO to pursue a PhD specifically so I could enter higher ed as a full-time instructor. Teaching is my passion, and I cannot teach if I don’t come to class. Furthermore, there are more than 300 students enrolled in the class I’ve been assigned to, and there is simply no way that the professor can handle that many students on his own.

Again, I understand that the point of a strike is to disrupt “business as usual” in the hopes that the opposing party will make the desired concessions. But a university is a very different environment than, say, a hotel or a for-profit business. Again, students are the priority, and my first priority is to them.

For these reasons, I have decided not to strike. While my sympathies lie with the union, and I will do what I can to support the strike, I cannot, in good conscience, fully participate. I sincerely hope that the strike is resolved; the university could’ve prevented this entire mess months ago (indeed, the administration spent more on attorneys than it would have cost to simply give the GTFF what it was asking for). Let’s hope that the strike has its intended effect and comes to a swift conclusion.