A Day at Negotiations – March 28th, 2013

UO Classified Employee Kelly Fitzpatrick talks about her day listening to bargaining at Portland State University

I attended the bargaining session held at the PSU campus on Thursday, March 28, and came away with a stronger understanding of why we members need to be visible during the bargaining process.

As a UO classified employee at the UO in Portland since September 1990, I’ve been through several collective bargaining experiences, including strike votes and walking the picket line more than once. I’ve never observed a bargaining session; I’ve simply relied on the bargaining team to keep me updated. I’ve never given the process my full attention until there was serious discussion about striking.

This year I decided it was time to see what happens during a bargaining session, so I signed up for a vacation day from my job and went to PSU not knowing exactly what I’d see nor how long I’d observe. While I am a member of the union, my intention was to be open minded, to focus on the process and be as objective as possible in assessing what I would see. I planned to observe for just a couple of hours, maybe even a half day, but ended up watching the whole day. During the nine hours, I saw three sessions of face-to-face bargaining with both our union team and OUS’s management team in the room and four caucus sessions where only our union team was in the room.

It was actually an incredibly valuable experience! I now know how very lucky we are to have these 8 union members and 3 SEIU staff members working to achieve a fair and just contract for us. We have team members who have been through the bargaining process many times and bring a vast amount of knowledge to the table. They use that knowledge to interpret management proposals and understand the potential benefits—and, more importantly, the risks—they might pose to members now and in the future. They know the history of particular issues that have been covered in the past, reasons why certain language has been bargained hard for—and won, and why sometimes seemingly innocent changes to existing language are anything but harmless.

I was extremely impressed at how professionally our union team members presented themselves during the face-to-face sessions. Much like a trial, collective bargaining deals with minute details and nuances of language, and there are specific rules for how the sessions are conducted. I saw that our team members were calm, focused, and consistently respectful of everyone present in the room, as they discussed difficult, serious issues and made their points to the management team. During the caucus sessions, they thoughtfully analyzed management proposals and counterproposals, and developed necessary strategies to prepare for subsequent face-to-face sessions.

I would like to be able to say all members of the management team were equally respectful, but that is not what I saw. While the majority of the management team maintained their professionalism, their spokesperson, Brian Caufield—whose early emails made it sound like negotiations have been productive and relatively friendly—was a great disappointment. Several times, he identified himself with pride as the “Grammar Hawk” for proposing dozens of very minor word changes in our contract. As a result of his zeal in this area, the two teams spent a great deal of time wading through unnecessary wording adjustments (e.g. changing “Office of Human Resources” to “Human Resources Office”). Our team has had to deal with this type of time-wasting “housekeeping” during the first 3 rounds of negotiations, diverting the focus from more important issues of concern, like wages and benefits.

I also observed emotional outbursts on the part of Mr. Caufield—raising his voice, slamming his hand on the table, making condescending remarks to team members that seemed unnecessary and juvenile. Although I did not observe the Friday session, I heard from a team member that Mr. Caufield’s behavior was much worse that day. It now appears that the remaining negotiations will be as contentious as in past years.

As our union team has advised us, don’t take Mr. Caufield’s description of the bargaining sessions as fact. Instead go see negotiations firsthand for yourself. It helped me appreciate even more the very difficult work the union team is doing on our behalf. By showing up to watch a session, we offer them support and appreciation for the long, laborious, and stressful process they are undergoing for our benefit. Of equal importance, making ourselves visible to the management team reminds them thatwe’re real people, not just numbers of workers and budget figures on paper.

I strongly encourage you to attend the next bargaining session on the Eugene campus (June 6 & 7), or if you’re in Portland, at the PSU campus (May 16 & 17). It doesn’t have to be lengthy. Use a short work break or an hour or two of vacation time to show the union team your support and appreciation—and to show the management team that we are serious about getting a just, fair contract!

SEIU Local 085