CORVALLIS - Oregon State University graduate assistants will hold a vote-by-mail election this fall to determine if campus research and teaching assistants will unionize.

The 14-day election starts Oct. 21 as the Oregon Employment Relation Board mails ballots to eligible students. Ballots must be returned to the ERB by 5 p.m. Nov. 4 and will be counted on Nov. 5.

A simple majority of the ballots cast will determine if the unionization proposal is successful at OSU, said Sally K. Francis, interim dean of the OSU Graduate School.

The formal move to unionize OSU graduate assistants began with health insurance issues raised by the OSU Coalition of Graduate Students, which was formed in January, 1998. The coalition is a group of OSU graduate students affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers - Oregon, AFL/CIO.

Realizing the importance of the health care issue, OSU for several years has worked to enhance health care coverage for all students, said Jack Higginbotham, associate dean of the Graduate School.

"We have taken action in the past, we are taking action now and we will take action in the future," Higginbotham said. As part of that effort, OSU pay scales for graduate assistants have traditionally included extra cash, he said.

For example, at the University of Oregon, where graduate assistants are represented by the American Federation of Teachers, half-time UO assistants during the 1998-99 school year received a minimum nine-month stipend of $8,795, which includes a $446 student health insurance premium. At OSU, graduate assistants received a minimum $10,652 nine-month stipend.

In 1997-98 UO half-time assistants received a minimum of $8,577, including $393 for insurance, while OSU assistants received a minimum of $10,341.

Additionally, an Oregon University System task force will analyze options for affordable health insurance coverage for Oregon students and report to the State Board of Higher Education in January.

The unionization campaign received campus attention in winter term 1998-99 when the coalition and the federation conducted a card campaign on campus that indicated more than 30 percent of OSU graduate assistants were interested in being represented by a union.

During the 1998-99 school year, OSU employed about 1,300 graduate assistants. Graduate assistants have union representation at around a dozen universities throughout the country, including the University of Oregon and the University of Michigan.

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Sally Francis, 541-737-4881