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Oregon State University graduate employees rally for a fair contract

By Kosta Harlan

March organized by CGE Local 6069 confronts OSU administration

CGE Local 6069 VP of Organizing Michelle Zellers speaks at rally.

Corvallis, OR – Chants rang out across the steps of Memorial Union on the campus of Oregon State University (OSU) Sept. 8, as 100 graduate workers, staff, professors and students rallied in support of a fair contract for the graduate employees. “Who does the work? We do! Who are we? C-G-E! What do we want? Contract!”

The rally, organized by the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) Local 6069, comes after eight months of bargaining with the OSU administration. At stake are two core issues for the CGE: increasing the base salary to the minimum amount recommended by OSU's Graduate School and retaining a $300 per term fee relief.

“The minimum base salary has stayed as it is too long,” explained Michelle Zellers, the vice president of organizing for the union. “We might make as little as $9000 per year. We can't support ourselves. We're taking out loans and taking on extra jobs. It's difficult to give students all the attention they deserve when we're struggling to get by financially. We need a living wage.”

In fact, OSU pays the second lowest minimum graduate employee salaries compared to its peer institutions, said Rob Hess, president of CGE Local 6069. The minimal salary hasn't changed since 2006. “People are working at near poverty wages now,” said Hess, “and that's not something we will accept.”

Zellers told Fight Back! that the CGE was rallying support of the OSU community to demand a fair contract. According to Zellers, over 15 department chairs at OSU are supportive of CGE's efforts to raise the minimum stipend and retain the $300 per term that graduate employees receive to help pay their fees; a member of the Associated Students at Oregon State University (ASOSU) spoke at the rally in support of the graduate workers; and professors, staff, and members of other unions on campus have rallied behind the CGE.

After the rally, the protesters marched to Kerr Administration Building to present their demand that the administration sign a fair contract with the CGE. Chants of “C-G-E” and “What do we want? Contract!” echoed off campus buildings while students passing by waved and honked car horns in support. The demonstration marched up six flights of stairs to President Edward Ray's office. There, graduate employees and students confronted President Ray over the university's failure to implement a fair contract.

Michelle Zellers presented the union's demands and President Ray responded with vague answers. When President Ray tried to use the argument that the poor state of the economy was to blame, the protesters pointed out that the University has the money to pay the wage increases, but that it is choosing not to.

President Ray refused to make any specific commitments on the contract, but promised that he would work to resolve the problems within “the next several days and weeks.” The protesters left the building unimpressed with the lack of commitment, but prepared to continue the struggle for a fair contract, a living wage and just working conditions.

Rachel Brinker, graduate teaching assistant in the Women's Studies program, “Today's rally showed that our graduate employees are united. We demand to be taken seriously as employees of the university, and unfortunately in eight months of negotiations, that hasn't happened. We hope that will change starting now.”

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