It’s Not About the Massages

The UO Administration has been spreading the rumor around campus that the GTFF is about to go out on strike because they love their free massages. This is bullshit.

Before I became UAUO’s Executive Director in 2014, I spent 10 years working for the GTFF. So I know their contract, their health insurance program, and what is important to graduate employees on our campus.

I hope you won’t mind a little history. In roughly 1999, the members of the GTFF fought to have a real, employment-based health insurance plan. They were able to get the administration to agree to pay for a decent insurance plan, but the one thing that admin did not want to do was administrate the plan. So the grads said they would do it themselves. The union formed a trust – the GTFF Health Insurance Trust – which has run the health care plan ever since. That means that each year, it is the GTFF and the Trust, not the administration, that contacts GEs, informs them of their benefits, signs them up, helps them when they run into problems, and works to keep the plan healthy and cheap. Just as they wanted, the administration only plays a small role.

Each year, the GTFF works with their health insurance provider to keep the costs as low as possible, then they bargain with the administration over how much the university would contribute to the plan. Some years cost increases were low, so bargaining was easy. Some years the costs were high, and bargaining was difficult. Some years, the university was under a state-wide public employee wage freeze, so the two parties were able to agree to health insurance benefit increases or lower costs for GEs in lieu of raises.

This year, unfortunately, the administration came to bargaining with a complicated scheme whereby they would raise wages if the GTFF would agree to significant cuts to their health insurance subsidies. This was not the first time the administration had proposed this idea. In previous rounds of bargaining, the administration had explained to the GTFF bargaining team that GEs don’t actually need decent health insurance because they are young and healthy and that GEs would rather have the money in their pockets than health insurance. Every time, the GTFF bargaining team told them that these things were not true, and they knew this because they talked with GEs every day. In fact, the health insurance was one of the few things the UO had to offer prospective GEs. Every time the GTFF has been given the chance, the GEs have chosen to protect their health insurance, rather than grab raises. This time is no different.

Over the last several years, many administrators have latched on to the idea that GE health insurance is too good, especially the massages. You may have heard that GEs get 50, 75, or 99 free massages every year. It seems outrageous. It would be, if it were true. The GTFF health insurance plan guarantees to each GE exactly 36 insurance-subsidized massages every year. GEs have a co-pay of 10% for each massage. The insurance-covered massages did increase to 36 from 20 last year, because their new insurance company threw them in for free to entice the Trust to switch from their old insurance. GEs actually use the massage benefit so infrequently that the cost difference between offering 20 massages and offering 36 massages is negligible.

So what do GEs use their insurance for? It’s been a few years since I worked with them, but I can’t imagine it has changed much. The three big cost drivers are prescriptions, mental health, and emergencies. These are things that the administration is not going to talk about when complaining about the cost of GE health insurance.

The GTFF is not contemplating going out on strike to protect their free massages. So why are they talking strike? Because this year, the administration has decided to back out of their 1999 agreement and wants control of the health care plan. Or, as the administration puts it, they want “cost containment.” They claim that GE health insurance it too expensive. This is why they talk about all those “free” massages; the implication is that if the GTFF would just give up their massages, the cost of the plan would be reasonable. This is, as I mentioned above, bullshit.

What the admin wants to do is have an agreement whereby the GTFF Trust would pay the majority of any future cost increases either by raising the premium costs for GEs or cutting their benefits. This sounds not just petty, but mean. What kind of pinchpennies raise health insurance premium costs for workers earning roughly poverty wages? How soulless do you have to be to raise the co-pays for prescriptions or mental health visits for those same workers? Of course our pals in administration would never do such a thing, so they invented the crisis of “too many free massages” to explain their actions.

The GTFF is talking strike because they know that accepting the administration’s proposal would mean that, should the Trust experience a medium-sized cost increase, GEs will face cuts to core services or large premium increases. A large cost increase – driven by a few large emergency claims – would force the GTFF Trust to radically restructure the plan. The GTFF is talking strike because they simply cannot agree to pay for a big increase.

The simple truth is that the administration would like to pay less for GE health insurance. This is understandable. That the administration would like to pay less for GE health insurance by making GEs cut benefits or pay more is unconscionable. That’s why the GTFF is being forced to go consider going out on strike. 

The leadership of UA has made it clear to both the GTFF and the administration that faculty believe that GEs deserve decent benefits and decent salaries for the hard work they do. Classes and labs cannot run without them. I hope GEs do not have to go out on strike to protect their health insurance, but if they do, I know faculty will stand with them.

In solidarity,

Dave Cecil