With three negotiating sessions left and no agreements reached on the most contentious bargaining points, representatives for the University and the Graduate Employees’ Organization have begun considering what course of action to take if they haven’t reached a consensus when the extended labor contract for graduate student instructors expires on March 17.

In discussions last week, the two sides signed four smaller technical agreements but failed to make inroads on salary increases or expanded health care coverage – their stickiest sticky negotiating points.

“We didn’t go backwards,” said Jeff Frumkin, senior director of academic human resources and a member of the University’s bargaining team. “But we didn’t go forwards either.”

As the window of time left to reach a new contract winds down, GEO is beginning to make arrangements for a possible strike. The union represents graduate student employees at the University, including graduate student instructors.

“We’re not calling it a strike, we’re calling it a work stoppage, and we’re definitely moving toward that,” said Colleen Woods, the lead negotiator for GEO and a History department GSI. “It would be irresponsible for us not to prepare ourselves for that.”

With so few bargaining sessions left and a possible GSI strike looming, Woods said GEO is focusing its efforts on a few major issues like salary increases and health care benefits.

“We are narrowing our priorities to our strike platform,” she said. “The purpose of the strike platform is that it’s a sign from our members that these are the issues that we are willing to walk out for. We won’t concede those at the table.”

If a new contract agreement is not reached by March 17, GEO members will meet the following day to vote on whether to leave the negotiating table.

The negotiating team would first report on where the contract stands at that time. Union members would then vote on whether to consider striking.

If a strike does take place, participating GSIs would stop their usual work for the University and instead form a picket line outside University buildings.

“We ask GSIs to basically withhold their labor from the University, so not do any of the work they would typically do as a graduate student,” Woods said. “So if they’re teaching a section that day, they wouldn’t teach their section. They wouldn’t do grading, they wouldn’t hold office hours, they wouldn’t respond to emails.”

University officials said they remain confident, that a strike can be avoided.

“I remain hopeful that something will get done,” Frumkin said.

Frumkin said that in past labor negotiations he has seen contracts extended, seen people ignore the contract deadline and keep negotiating and seen the talks go before an arbitrator.

“There’s a point where the two sides agree to bring in a third party,” he said. “It’s called an impasse procedure.”

In general, if an impasse is declared, a third party is brought in to mediate between the two sides to forge a deal deemed to be fair and avoid strike activities.

“We have, in past negotiations, formally declared an impasse,” said Patrick O’Mahen, a spokesman for GEO and a GSI in the political science department. “We have brought in an outside mediator in the past.”

Frumkin acknowledged that third-party mediators had been brought in previously, but he said he doubted that they would be necessary in the current negotiations.

Although GEO officials say they’re frustrated with current negotiations, they hope to avoid an impasse procedure.

“We want to get this contract settled without going to arbitration,” Woods said. “That is an option in all contract negotiations, but we would like the University to settle with us.”

GEO’s latest salary proposal, made last month, called for a 9-percent salary increase for the first year of their new contract and inflationary adjustments the second and third years. The group is still awaiting the University’s counter-offer on the major issues.

“The ball’s in their court in terms of wages and benefits right now,” Woods said.

Frumkin said the two sides were still far from reaching an agreement on wages but that once those aspects are decided, the rest of the negotiations could be settled soon thereafter.

“A lot of things can happen very quickly after one or two things fall into place,” he said.

GEO’s most recent contract became effective on April 21, 2005 and was set to expire on March 1, 2008, but the union’s members voted to extend that deadline until March 17 to allow for added contract negotiation sessions.

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