School, unions still dancing to different beats

URBANA – They don't perform pirouettes or sing arias on stage.

Of the 10,000 or so employees of the University of Illinois, this is a group you might not have heard about.

The theatrical stitchers of the Krannert Center for Performing Arts sew together the many period costumes that dancers, opera singers and actors will wear on stage.

For this, the three stitchers earn full-time salaries of $21,000 to $23,000 a year.

After members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 698 conducted a salary survey of stage builders, receptionists, attendants and other employees at the UI's performing arts center, the union found the stitchers made well below what other employees made.

Among the many proposals the union has presented to the University of Illinois, it wants the university to increase stitchers' salaries to $25,584 to bring them closer to the average annual pay for Krannert staff.

The union wants to do the same for UI telephone operators and crash rescue and security specialists at Willard Airport.

"We're not asking for the moon here. We're not asking for extravagant raises. We're trying to put people up to a reasonable level," said Margaret Lewis, vice president of AFSCME Local 698.

But for now, contract negotiations are at a standstill. The union's contract ended last August, and despite several meetings since then, there is no new contract.

Both sides have requested federal mediation and are awaiting a response from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

In the meantime, union members are conducting informational pickets on campus.

"We certainly would prefer for all employes to be satisfied all the time," said UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler, who added that the groups have the right to picket and let everyone know their thoughts.

"Our whole role is to balance competing interests and needs and be as fair as we can to everyone," she said.

Local 698 is not the only union in contract negotiations with the university.

The Urbana-Champaign campus is home to 12 unions representing about 3,700 employees. The UI is negotiating with four unions: AFSCME Local 698, Teamsters Local 26, the Graduate Employees Union and the visiting academic professionals.

For AFSCME 698 and Teamsters Local 26, which represents drivers, warehouse workers and others at the UI, it has been nearly a year since their contract expired. The graduate employees' contract expires in two months.

And the visiting academic professionals, who voted to unionize in spring 2005, have been negotiating for several months.

"We haven't agreed to much," said Alan Bilansky, an instructional designer with the UI and a member of the visiting academic professionals' bargaining committee.

Bilansky said he had no indication if an agreement would be reached soon, but certainly not in the next month.

"There's an awful lot yet to agree to and much to be contested," said Bilansky, who declined to reveal details about sticking points.

"It's fair to say our members are worried about job security," he said.

The UI employs about 300 to 350 visiting academic professionals who support faculty and staff.

"It's easier to hire and fire academic professionals. They're the shakiest employees. Now, visiting academic professionals can be let go at any minute," Bilansky said.

As for the Graduate Employees Union, its members presented their proposal to the UI on April 25.

"We're focusing emphasis on improving working conditions and general quality of life for the graduate work force: more affordable and more effective health care as well as wage increases that make us more competitive with our peer institutions," said Christopher Simeone, lead negotiator for the Graduate Employees' Union. "The university has been reluctant to agree to anything we've proposed."

Their contract expires in August.

"Our goal is to meet with the university as often as necessary to get this done as soon as possible," Simeone said.

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