Stalled contract negotiations may spur workers who provide student services at Oregon’s state universities, including the approximately 130 employed at Eastern Oregon University, to strike.

Members of the Eastern Oregon University chapter of SEIU Local 503, the union representing the student services workers, were told Monday they should be ready to vote to support a strike.

“If you are not ready to strike, then you should be ready to take what they give us,” said Rob Fullmer of Portland State University, a leader of the negotiating team for student services workers at Oregon’s state universities, to EOU’s student services workers Monday afternoon.

Fullmer told EOU student services employees this before they began a march around the Hoke Union Building and up to Inlow Hall while carrying picket signs and chanting for support from Eastern officials.

The chants included “You can’t break our union down, La Grande is a union town,” and “What do we want? Fair contract. When do we want it? Now!”

Economic issues are the primary reason contract talks, which began about five months ago, are at an impasse. The employees union is seeking a contract that would provide base wage increases of 4.5% retroactive to July 1 of this year and another that would take effect July 1, 2020.

The universities are offering two base wage increases of 0.5%. One would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, and the second would kick in Jan. 1, 2021.

Fullmer said increases of 0.5% in 2020 and 2021 would not come close to helping worker wages keep up with inflation. He said that even during the recession of a decade ago, when inflation was very low, it still topped 0.5% a year.

Jo Hickerson, president of the EOU chapter of SEIU Local 503, said the pay increase offer from the universities is unacceptable.

“We cannot afford to lose buying power,” Hickerson said.

Tim Seydel, EOU’s vice president for university advancement, said he hopes a settlement can be reached that meets the needs of both parties. He stressed that university officials are sensitive to the needs of classified staff workers.

“We very much value our classified employees who are part of the SEIU. They are an integral part of running all of the universities, and play a key role in student success. We work hard to support our staff while also keeping access, affordability and success of students at the forefront of our decisions,” Seydel said.

Strikes involving student services workers at Oregon’s state universities, which are legal under Oregon labor law when the proper process is followed, are relatively rare. Fullmer said the last occurred in 1995 but noted that in 2013 SEIU student services workers came within two days of a strike.

“(The 2013) negotiations were going well (in the days leading up to the near strike) compared to these negotiations,” Fullmer said.

Hickerson is a bit more optimistic about contract negotiations.

“There has been some movement, but it feels slow,” Hickerson said.

She said that pledges are now being gathered from EOU student services employees asking them whether they would be willing to strike if the current contract offer is not improved.

EOU’s approximately 130 student services workers include custodians; carpenters; plumbers; heating, air conditioning and ventilation system specialists; information technology workers; office specialists and others. There are between 4,500 and 5,000 student services workers at the seven universities in the Oregon University System.

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