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Union for university workers extends possible strike date

 Posted: 7:25 AM September 17, 2013

The union representing classified workers at the University of Oregon and the state's six other public universities has pushed back a potential strike date to Sept. 30, the first day of class for most students.

The decision by the bargaining team of the Service Employees International Union Local 503 came after it concluded that some progress was made during lengthy bargaining sessions with the Oregon University System at Oregon State University on Friday and Saturday.

The union, which represents 4,500 classified workers in the university system, including about 1,500 at the UO, had authorized last week a strike that was set to begin Sept. 23.

"We saw some signs that management is motivated and dedicated to get this to a settlement before a strike, so we wanted to give some of these things time to play out," Marc Nisenfeld, the bargaining team's chairman, said Monday morning.

He added: "I've used the adage, 'It's better to stumble into peace than to rush into war.'"

Nisenfeld declined to discuss specifically what his team saw as potential breakthroughs during the weekend sessions. He generally characterized it as the university system's willingness to be more creative to reach a settlement.

The university system also expressed confidence that a settlement could be reached to avert a strike.

"We respect all of our employees and the contributions they make to student success. We are committed to a settlement that recognizes the need for fair compensation and benefits within the limited means of all of our campuses," Interim Chancellor Melody Rose said in a statement.

The next bargaining session will begin Wednesday morning at the UO, and Nisenfeld said his team is committed to negotiating late into the night if need be to reach a settlement.

About 170 union members and supporters marched and rallied on the UO campus Friday as Sam Dotters-Katz, president of the UO student government, called for students statewide not to cross picket lines in the event of a strike and to stand in solidarity with classified workers.

UO administrators are identifying critical jobs and figuring out how employees who wouldn't be on strike could be used to fill them. Classes would begin on time, and campus services would proceed uninterrupted, the university system said.

The sticking point between the union and university system has been wages. The union argues that its members are falling behind economically while top administrators in the public university system continue to receive generous salaries and benefits.

But the university system maintains the union's proposed pay increases for classified workers would add to the pressure to raise tuition.

State government's contribution to the public higher education system remains at the same level it was a decade ago, even as the system's student enrollment has increased by 30,000.

The university system has offered the union cost-of-living raises of 1.5 percent in the first year of a new contract, and 2 percent in the second year. The union wants 2.5 percent in both years. The system also is offering one year of "step" increases — raises based on a worker's years of experience — while the union wants two.

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