In Focus: Kurt Willcox

Kurt Willcox served the University of Oregon community and the people who work with it for many years. He was recently honored with the Classified Leadership Award by the UO Senate.

Kurt Willcox served the University of Oregon community and the people who work with it for many years. He was recently honored with the Classified Leadership Award by the UO Senate.

In Focus is a question-and-answer series with people who are members of SEIU 503–085 UO.

What was your first engagement with labor activism and labor issues?

I grew up in a middle-class, suburban family that really had no connection with Unions at all. My first direct Union experience was after I moved out here to Oregon, when I was working as a letter carrier in Eugene. I got very interested in the activities that were going on in my Union there. I eventually left the Post Office and went to graduate school here at the university, and got a master’s degree in industrial and labor relations.

What issues were you engaging with as a graduate student in the 1970s?

I got very interested in supporting the United Farm Workers (UFW) and joined a local group, Eugene Friends of the Farm Workers. We held a variety of community actions at stores and tried to encourage people to boycott grapes and lettuce.

How did the farmworkers’ cause impact the campus?

Here at the university, the administration had a policy they called “freedom of choice.” The university insisted that the various food services at the EMU had to offer both Farm Worker lettuce and non-Farm Worker lettuce, so that people were “free to choose” whatever they wanted in their sandwiches and salads. Several of us decided that people should have a better choice, so we opened what we called a Boycott Restaurant on the EMU terrace. We made sandwiches [with Farm Worker produce] at five o’clock in the morning and brought them to campus in coolers, and we got a lot of business from the students who supported the Farm Workers union. We kept that restaurant running for fifteen months!

Did the university admire your enterprise?

Well, at one point when the weather turned bad and we were getting soaked on the terrace, folks decided it would be better to move inside. We commandeered a little room off the Fishbowl and set up our restaurant there. Without permission. A few of us were brought up on student conduct charges. We demanded a public trial, got convicted and came pretty close to getting kicked out of the university. But we had a very smart third-year law student representing us, and he managed to get us off on an appeal. Those were fun times.

We find ourselves in different times today.

Yes. And one of the big issues before student government now is bringing a food pantry to campus – a food pantry for students. Through the Board of Trustees and directly, I am hearing many more stories from students about having to make hard choices between food and rent and tuition.

How did we get to this place where so many college students are struggling with food security?

One of the key things that’s happened is the way that higher education is financed has changed. There used to be very significant funding from the state – now that burden has shifted to students. Thirty-five years ago, when I went to graduate school, I was able to work and pay for my education. Doing that is extremely difficult for people now. My daughter attended the UO and graduated with a master’s degree in teaching in 2012. During those five years, undergraduate resident tuition went up over 55%—that’s an average of 11% per year. So the recent tuition increases while serious are nothing new, and it’s put a real squeeze on students.

In your years of service and membership in our Union, what accomplishment are you proudest of?

I am, of course, very pleased about the work we did four years ago in contract negotiations. We were presented with significant takeaways at the first bargaining session, and a lot of folks including myself worked to make sure that information got out to our Members. We held worksite meetings and figured out how to push back. Eventually that pushback was successful and we got a reasonable contract out of what looked like a very difficult situation.

 

Kurt giving bargaining update

Kurt giving bargaining update

Has bargaining always been this difficult?

 

The tone over the years has become much more adversarial. Some of that is a result of changes in higher ed. financing; some is the change in personalities at the bargaining table. For Classified workers, I think this increased conflict takes a toll on people’s morale, on people’s sense of whether their work is valued and respected. This doesn’t just affect our Members, but also the faculty, other employees and students.

In order to reverse this trend, where do the biggest challenges lie?

I really think the biggest problem is the revenue. The legislature needs to come up with a better model. We’ve also had a high degree of difficulty with the response that the university typically provides when problems with managers’ supervision are pointed out. I don’t think this problem is a new one, but, in recent years, we’ve had particular problems around discriminatory treatment of employees that have not been dealt with satisfactorily.

Why is it important for workers to be connected with their Union?

Being involved in the Union does not have to mean being angry, fighting with people, not liking your job. The Union is a way to connect with other people in your workplace. The strongest way to have a voice in our workplace—whether it’s issues of pay or job security or supervision—is to join together with other people. A Union is people figuring out together how to raise their concerns and get their employer to address them.

Kurt Willcox is applauded by members of the UO Senate, who voted to award him their annual Classified Staff Leadership Award. It is in honor of a leader that fosters a healthy work environment.

Kurt Willcox is applauded by members of the UO Senate, who voted to award him their annual Classified Staff Leadership Award. It is in honor of a leader that fosters a healthy work environment.

Looking back, any other standout memories?

I want to mention some things that other people have done in recent years, particularly the faculty. After years and years of trying to organize and getting pushed back by university administration on several occasions, they were finally able to form a Union, bargain a good contract, and greatly help the non-tenure track faculty. I’m also very proud of the GTFF. The graduate teaching fellows got pushed into a strike just a couple of years ago, and they fought back. They conducted a very loud, boisterous, and ultimately successful strike to maintain some benefits and to make some real gains in the areas of sick leave and compensation.

Final thoughts?

It’s important to recognize that a Union is a positive force in the workplace. At the same time, it is only as strong and capable as the people who are active in it.

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SEIU Local 503 Sublocal 085: University of Oregon
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