Jacob Jakuszeit, chair of OU’s classified senate, is one of the leaders of the unionization effort on campus. He’s photographed here where he works in OU’s Alden Library. Photo by Conor Morris.

Ohio University’s classified staff – a group of more than 500 workers across the university’s campuses – is once again discussing the possibility of unionizing.

Steve Roth, state director for organizing with AFSCME Council 8 (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), said in an interview last week that upward of 80 percent of the classified staff at OU that his agency has spoken to – several hundred staffers, he said – have said they’re interested in unionizing.

The Local 1699 chapter of AFSCME Council 8 has long represented more than 700 skilled-trade workers at OU. If approved, the new union group would be a separate chapter from the 1699 chapter, and would represent hundreds of clerical staff, library staff, administrative assistants and others.

This staff at OU has long been considered for potential unionization efforts; The NEWS has references to such attempts going back to at least 1998 in its archives (the effort in 1998 failed by roughly 50 votes, The NEWS reported at the time). Another effort took place in the late 1980s.

“They (staffers) feel like the budget is being balanced on their backs,” Roth said. “And they just want at least a voice. A lot of people are saying they want a shot to equal the playing field.”

This discussion comes as OU reportedly has faced budget struggles in recent years. The NEWS reported last May that colleges on the university’s Athens campus were asked to come up with $19.3 million in budget reductions over the next four years. Most of OU’s administrative offices took a $4.8 million cut in 2018, along with another $1.5 million cut expected this year, and another $2.15 million cut coming in Fiscal Year 2020, The NEWS previously reported. 

Jacob Jakuszeit, a library support associate who works at Alden Library, said Friday that as those budget discussions continue at the university, he and other classified staff are dealing with a lot of uncertainty.

“My objective is to have better financial security for the people who help run the university,” he said. “We want at a very deep level to make this place the best it can be…. Not just as a place to work but as a place for our students to learn and grow, and that relies on us being confident that we are valued and confident that we have a safe and secure future.

Jakuszeit, who chairs OU’s Classified Senate, is a among the main organizers of the unionization effort. He noted that while the Classified Senate is one way for the classified staff to express their concerns and ask questions of the university, a union will provide a concrete way for that staff to “know what to expect” on a year-to-year basis, especially in terms of potential raises and changes in insurance premiums.

As one circumstance that classified staffers face, Jakuszeit cited a lack of parity on health-care-plan costs compared to those in the skilled-trade union. While those costs are about the same for a single person on a health-care plan, Jakuszeit said, the costs for a classified worker rise disproportionately higher when a spouse and/or children are added on to the plan, as compared to the health-care plans for the skilled-trade union members.

Jakuszeit and Roth said that while they think a union is needed for the classified staff, they both want to work with OU’s administration as closely as possible, and prefer avoiding an adversarial process.

OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said in a statement Tuesday that the university is aware that AFSCME organizers have spoken with some classified employees, but noted that AFSCME has not yet formally approached the university.

Jakuszeit provided a copy of a mailer from AFSCME Council 8 comparing the salaries of OU administrative office support associates and administrative office support specialists (two different classes of employees) with similar staffs at other universities with unionized classified staffs. The starting-grade wages at OU for the associate-level class is listed at $10.35 per hour, and $12.61 for the specialist-level class; that’s compared to about $15.69 for the associate-level employees at the University of Minnesota and $16.18 at that university for the specialist-level employees.

“With regard to compensation, every four to five years the university voluntarily conducts a fair and thorough review of our existing benchmarks in comparison to appropriate external labor markets, possible new benchmarks and current market rates against our pay-grade structure,” Leatherwood wrote. “Assigned pay grades for particular jobs on campus may be adjusted during this time. The last review was conducted in 2014, and we are now preparing to begin our 2019 review.

“In addition to the five-year classified, administrative and professional employee market study that is currently underway, our compensation philosophy also includes a biennial equity review that reflects our commitment to ensuring employees are paid on an equitable basis,” Leatherwood said.

A website advocating for the classified-staff unionization effort at www.myoucats.org includes a message from John Ackison, president of the Local 1699 chapter.

“I want to express our overwhelming support of the classified employees working to organize and form their own union,” Ackison wrote. “When workers come together we all thrive.”

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