UO Graduate Employees Union Files Complaint Against University Over COVID-19 Policy
The Union of Oregon Graduate Employees on Monday filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the state Labor Relations Board, alleging that the university’s new COVID-19 policies violate their contract .
The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation says the university’s new policies, announced last week, represent a change in working conditions for graduate employees – something that must be negotiated through negotiation.
The GTFF requested last Wednesday that the OU administration move courses online for two weeks, or until the increase in COVID-19 cases in the campus community “decreases to a reasonable level” .
Last week, the university reported 982 cases of COVID-19 within the campus community, according to its data dashboard. This is up from 154 cases the previous week.
The university implemented new COVID-19 policies on Thursday that stipulate that instructors – including graduate teaching fellows represented by unions – can move their courses online on two conditions. They need the support of their deans or department heads, and their classes must experience at least 20% student absences linked to COVID-19. Instructors who continue to work in person should record their classroom sessions for absent students.
“By doing GE [graduate employees] following the 20% threshold for COVID-related absences and forcing GEs to register their courses, the University is making direct changes to our working conditions without our consent through negotiations, ”GTFF said in a statement this week-end.
The union encourages its members to exercise their right to refuse to work in a dangerous work environment.
The GTFF has received support for its demands inside and outside the campus community.
Student associates at UO, the university’s student government, posted online last week that they stand in solidarity with the union.
Liz Shuler, UO alumnus and president of the AFL-CIO – the largest federation of unions in the country – tweeted on Friday in support of GTFF.
“It is time for management to honor their request for a temporary distance learning course until conditions are safely restored,” she wrote.
Mel Keller, president of GTFF, says the right to refuse to work in an unsafe work environment is protected by the union’s contract with the university.
“We want to make sure that all our members are aware of this policy and that they have rights under our contract which was negotiated with the university by the GTFF to give them protections if they feel that their place of work is not secure, ”Keller told OPB.
Along with potential contract violations, Keller says the university’s new policy is unclear – particularly the 20% absence rating linked to COVID-19.
Keller said the union had heard “mass confusion around the new policy” from union members and various UO departments.
“We also heard from faculty members and heads of departments, who are equally confused and trying to figure out how to implement this policy at their department level,” she said, saying the university had not provided advice on how to measure the 20% absence rate due to COVID-19.
“There is no explanation why 20% of students have to submit a COVID test, or if it is only by word of mouth, if the students are absent but do not give reasons related to COVID . It is incredibly unclear.
The union says instructors at the university are the ones who take attendance and receive information about absences, so they should have the power to make requests to move classes online regardless of the attendance rate.
The union said in its post that the most responsible decision for the university would be to move online courses and provide N95 or KN95 face masks to in-person employees and students who must remain in person, such as those in environments laboratory.
“UO clearly will not agree to this, and given the health and safety risks of this policy, we believe all educational SGs should request distance education,” GTFF executives wrote.
Keller also said the university’s new policies put unnecessary pressure on individual departments at the school. She argues that it would make more sense for the university to move largely to online learning rather than “having to deal with tons and tons of demands” from individual instructors and graduate students.
GTFF’s Keller said the union had received no response from the UO administration regarding its state complaint on Monday afternoon. The university told OPB on Monday evening that it “had initiated a review of the file.”