PORTLAND — The bargaining team representing thousands of classified staff at Oregon’s seven public university employees, including Eastern Oregon University, has declared an impasse in contract negotiations, inching closer to a strike.

Declaring an impasse means management has until Friday to submit a final offer to workers. After that, there’s a 30-day cooling off period. During that period, workers can give notice of a strike.

SEIU 503 represents thousands of university staff, including library technicians, office workers and custodial staff.

Members of the SEIU 503 bargaining team say the universities are not offering a fair contract. Union concerns range from salary increases to proposals related to layoffs and workplace bullying.

As part of negotiations, the union is asking for a 3.5% cost of living adjustment for 2020. The universities propose a 1% cost of living increase for next year.

SEIU 503 is also contesting salary increases and the maximum salary a university employee can earn. According to SEIU, the median salary for classified university employees is $36,136.

“What I’m looking at right now are proposals I can’t live with,” said Darrow Omar, office coordinator for Portland State’s women, sexuality, and gender studies department.

Omar is on leave from the job to work as a SEIU member organizer, telling colleagues what’s going on at the bargaining table.

Omar feels nervous about a possible strike, but there are also positive feelings out of the tense contract process. Omar said colleagues are supportive of each other amid the disrespect they feel from management.

“There’s excitement about it but the excitement comes from the extreme frustration that we are feeling,” Omar said.

It’s been 24 years since SEIU 503 members went on strike.

The bargaining news comes at a time when Oregon’s public universities are dealing with new funding from the state and tuition increases.

Oregon legislators gave $100 million more to the state’s public universities in a budget bill effective Aug. 9. Three universities received approval from the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission to raise tuition above 5%.

“Universities are offering their lowest-paid workers wage adjustments that don’t come close to matching inflation and students increases in tuition,” said PSU IT specialist Rob Fullmer in a SEIU 503 release.

The bargaining team said it will not agree to salary increases for specific jobs until management raises the total compensation package for all workers.

As Omar continues their second year at PSU, they say management’s proposal shows a disinterest in investing in employees.

“We’re very much the people that grinds the gears on campus so that universities run so that our students can get service,” said Omar. “What’s happening at the bargaining table is saying we’re not worth what we need to live.”

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