September 06, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

A strike involving Eastern Oregon Universitys 130 classified staff employees could begin as early as Sept. 16.

On Thursday the classified workers of the Oregon University System voted overwhelmingly to authorize their Oregon Public Employees Unions bargaining unit to strike because of stalled contract negotiations. The earliest that the OPEU could call a strike is Sept. 16.

Negotiations between the Oregon University System and OPEU have been at an impasse for more than a month.

Bob Bruce, a spokesman for the Oregon University System, said he is hopeful that a strike can be averted.

I am optimistic that an agreement can be reached as soon as possible, Bruce said. Nobody benefits from a strike.

Steve Wadner, a stationary engineer at Eastern and the bargaining delegate, also said hes hopeful that a settlement can be reached.

Voting at Eastern was conducted at the Hoke Center.

The classified employees are seeking wage increases of 3.23 percent each of the next two years and fully paid health insurance. The OUS is offering wage increases of 2 percent each of the next two years and to cover a portion of their increase in health insurance premiums.

Wadner said that the Oregon University Systems salary offer is unacceptable because OUS classified staff would be making less than employees at other state agencies.

Bruce noted that the state is also offering $200,000 to provide selected salary increases to OUS classified staff members who are further behind other employees.

On the health insurance front, the OUS is offering to pay the complete health insurance premiums for classified staff employees making less than $30,000 a year. The OUS is proposing that everyone making more than $30,000 annually pay 25 percent of the increase in their health insurance premiums over the next two years.

The insurance offer is unacceptable, Wadner said. He said the $30,000 salary cutoff would divide the unions membership. Wadner added that the offer would also mean that OUS classified staff workers would have less of their insurance premiums covered than workers at other state agencies.

OUS classified staff workers presently have fully paid health insurance. The OPEUs university employees are beginning the third year of a four-year contract.

A reopener clause stipulates that at the end of the two years, salaries, benefits and up to five other contract items can be negotiated.

At Eastern a strike would not prevent classes from starting as scheduled on Sept. 24, said EOU Provost Bruce Shepard. Classified staff employees include custodians, grounds and facilities maintenance staff and clerical support staff.