UI employees bargaining for a better deal
URBANA — As freshmen arrive on campus this week, the usual welcome party of upperclassmen and staff will meet them to help carry luggage and guide students to their new dorm rooms.
Also welcoming students on move-in day will be groups of University of Illinois employees, including graduate students, staff and faculty, rallying outside the Florida Avenue Residence Halls in support of organized labor. They'll be there to deliver the message that they are concerned about the university's approach to labor unions on campus.
"We feel under attack," said Margaret Lewis, a librarian specialist and secretary of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 698, which represents librarians, nurses and other UI employees. State employees, she said, are being attacked on the health care front, on the pension front, and now in negotiations as they fight to raise salaries for some of the lowest-paid workers on campus.
"It's disheartening," she said, when employees read about former President Michael Hogan being paid $285,000 to take a yearlong sabbatical and the university approving a $175,000 settlement with his former chief of staff, Lisa Troyer, upon her resignation as of Wednesday.
"We see these people leaving in disgrace and given massive amounts of money. We're not disgracing the university and yet we can't get anything basically. We have to fight for everything we can," Lewis said.
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said university administrators "do feel strongly the university is among the best employers in the area. And the total compensation packages (for UI employees) — including sick leave, holidays, health insurance and pension — is generous. We do offer new opportunities for promotion, lifelong learning and professional development," she said.
The rally planned for move-in day will be one of several held this summer by various unions and it will likely be followed by more this fall as several unions meet with university administrators to negotiate new contracts. Currently the university is negotiating or will soon negotiate 10 different contracts with unions representing a wide variety of employees in Urbana, including clerical workers, food service workers, visiting academic professionals, graduate employees and more.
In the case of the Visiting Academic Professionals union, which formed in 2005 and represents 300 members who work on year-to-year appointments, the union and the administration had reached an impasse earlier this month, at least according to the university. Union leaders maintained they were close to an agreement and wanted to continue bargaining. Meanwhile, the university terminated VAP's contract that expired last August after the union voted against ratifying an agreement administrators have described as the UI's final offer.
But the two sides met with a federal mediator Thursday afternoon and agreed to a four-year contract, said the union's chief negotiator, Alan Bilansky.
The tentative agreement provides a 3 percent raise for 2011-12, retroactive to Aug. 16, 2011, and a 2.5 percent raise for the 2012-13 academic year, which started Thursday, Bilansky said. Those are the same amounts granted to other academic professionals under the general campus salary program, he said.
No guaranteed raises are provided for the remaining two years of the agreement, but the contract allows managers to grant merit pay with the campus salary program as a guideline, Bilansky said. The union had hoped to get both guaranteed raises and the merit pay option, he said.
AFSCME 698's and 3700's contracts also expired in August 2011, and members have been meeting every other week last fall and then weekly this past spring. They will meet with a federal mediator later this month. For this coming contract, the union is conducting negotiations for the two locals jointly.
"Bargaining with the university — across the board with all the unions — it seems like they want to go to mediators or go to impasses. ... We give proposals, they say they will talk with management about it and then they come back with nothing. ... It drags on and on," said Jim McGuire, a UI shopkeeper and president of AFSCME 698.
Among its proposals to the university during negotiations, AFSCME has been trying to raise salaries for several of its groups, including crash rescue specialists at the UI's Willard Airport and stitchers at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
"The two previous stitchers at Krannert earned $13.67 about five years ago. The current stitchers make $12.50.
"We can't get them a raise to $13.67. Hopefully (the university) will come back to us on that proposal," McGuire said.
Labor groups contend the university has more money to work with than it leads on, and that's partly due to the fact that their members look around campus and see buildings being built, renovations taking place, and promotions being given to administrators, McGuire said. A study by Howard Bunsis of Eastern Michigan University conducted for campus labor groups found a 20 percent increase in UI administration and professionals from 2005 to 2010.
"The problem is where management decides to spend their revenue," he said.
Randy Kangas, the UI's associate vice president for planning and budget, contends that the staffing category used in that study included both administrators and academic professionals, an employee group which can include research associates, student counselors and many other employees — not just administrators. An increase does not necessarily mean more administrators, according to Kangas. For example, as funding increases for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications more programmers and research associates are hired, he said.
Last month, the campus labor coalition marched in front of the Alma Mater. The theme: "The university isn't broke, it is broken."
"It's important to remember units across campus have all sources of funding, and that does impact what they can do. Some are self-supporting, like Krannert, Campus Recreation, Dining Services, Parking and Printing. That becomes a big factor" in negotiating wages, Kaler said.
Negotiations can become protracted, according to Kaler, because contracts are often for multiple years and issues can build up during that time. Bargaining units can represent a variety of different people and employee groups. There's a lot to negotiate.
"And, honestly, when the economy is in a downturn, negotiations are more difficult. People are feeling the need to make sure they're compensated as well as they possibly can be. And organizations are striving to be good stewards with the limited resources they have," she said.
So far discussions between the Graduate Employees Organization and the university have been good, according to Natalie Uhl, a member of the GEO's bargaining team and anthropology graduate student. The two sides started bargaining in mid-April. Some agreements have been reached on language changes to the contract, including a more expansive statement on nondiscrimination and harassment.
"But usually with negotiation you leave the toughest things to last," Uhl said.
The two sides have not discussed money yet.
Nor have they come to an agreement on one of the most important issues for graduate students: tuition waivers.
"A lot of people tend to think strikes happen because of wages, but for graduate employees, tuition waivers are consistently the biggest issue our members wants us to fight for," Uhl said.
What good are high wages if you have to pay the money back in tuition to the university, she asked.
In 2009, the GEO went on strike while negotiating with the university over tuition waivers. After two days of being on strike, the union won concessions in contract language that protected waivers. But in 2010, a new administrative policy change moved to reduce waivers for some incoming graduate employees in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. The union filed a grievance, saying the policy violated the GEO's contract. The case went to arbitration and last fall the arbitrator sided with the union. It's now before the state labor board.
The Service Employees International Union Local 73/Chapter 119 represents two bargaining units on campus: food service workers and building service workers. They began negotiations in June. They also have not reached the point where they will discuss wages, said Ricky Baldwin, senior field organizer with SEIU.
What has troubled members so far, though, is the university's move to contract out some of the work currently being done by building service workers, he said.
"It's true what the university has been saying — they're losing funding from the state. We think that's a problem. It seems the university is increasingly relying on private sources, and the effect of that is we're seeing the university behave more like a private university than a public university and we see that toward workers at negotiations," Baldwin said.
They are advocating for "folks being hired by the university to do the work the university needs, paying them a decent salary and having rights at work," Baldwin said. Not "get something done as cheaply as you can," he said.
Collective-bargaining efforts at the university have not been restricted to maintenance staff, clerical workers or Visiting Academic Professionals. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, the faculty union met last week for the first time to begin negotiations on their first contract. They first organized in 2011. The university challenged the union's plans to include tenured and non-tenured faculty members in one bargaining unit. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board sided with the union, the UI appealed and the union eventually agreed to separate the two types of faculty into two bargaining units.
UIC Professor and union member Lennard Davis said university administration was "needlessly" antagonistic while the union was working on certifying the union, but members are hopeful moving into negotiation.
"Generally when there's a union actually there are better relations between workers and employers. Things get worked out. You work out the tough stuff in advance," he said.
"At the end of the day we want to work with them to make UIC the best possible place it can be," Davis said.
In Urbana, this academic year the Campus Faculty Association, which has worked for academic freedom, benefits and other related issues for several decades, will continue its "exploratory" stage to gauge faculty interest in collective bargaining here.
"With a strong voice, faculty can work hard to do more to help the university meet its core academic mission, its research mission and service mission," said outgoing CFA president Harriet Murav.
The group has often rallied and picketed alongside campus unions. Murav said she does not see the relationship between a union and administration as adversarial.
"These are people who are as equally dedicated ... as anyone else whether it's an administrator, staff or researcher/scholar. We've all dedicated our lives to this institution. We have a lot of battles to fight with our legislators. Why fight your own people who work and are having to do more with less? Why not turn it around? Why not make them your allies? When you present your face to public, you do so from a position of strength and unity," Murav said.
Unions in negotiations with UI
Graduate Employees Union: Expired last week; in negotiations for new contract.
Visiting Academic Professionals (affiliated with Illinois Education Association): Expired August 2011; tenative four-year agreement reached last week.
AFSCME 698 (nurses, stitchers, crop testing specialists and more): Expired August 2011; in negotiations for new contract.
AFSCME 3700 (secretaries, cashiers and other clericals): Expired August 2011; in negotiations for new contract.
FOP Corporals & Sergeants: Contract expires this week; negotiations to begin soon.
GCIU Local 219M/Graphic Communications International Union (press technicians, bindery workers): Contract expires this week; negotiations to begin soon.
IBEW Local 601 (broadcast engineers, communications technicians): Contract expires this week; in negotiations.
Teamsters Local 26: Contract expired August 2011; in mediation.
IUOE Local 399 (Abbott Power Plant workers): Contract expired late June; negotiations begin this week.
IUOE Local 399 (service/maintenance such as parking meter mechanic, copy center operators): Contract expired June; tentative agreement reached.
SEIU Chapter 119 Building Service Workers: Expired last month; in negotiations for new contract.
SEIU Chapter 119 Food Service Workers: Expired last month; in negotiations for new contract.
Union contracts still in-force
Fraternal Order of Police Local 26: Contract expires August 2013.
IAMAW Local 1000 (machinists, aerospace workers): Expires August 2015.
IATSE Local 482 (theatrical stage employees): Expires June 2014.
IBEW Local 51 (automotive mechanics, steam technicians and others): Expires August 2013.
IUOE Local 399 (housing maintenance inspector): Expires June 2015.
IUOE Local 841 (operating engineers): Expires March 2013.
LIUNA Local 703 (laborers): Expires August 2013.
Source: University of Illinois