URBANA — A union representing 1,300 clerical and technical workers at the University of Illinois is now being run by its international organization as it prepares for the next round of contract negotiations with the university.
In an Oct. 8 letter to the university, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said union officials had "found it necessary" to place AFSCME Local 3700 under the "administratorship" of the international union. The letter was sent from AFSCME President Lee Saunders to Elyne Cole, UI associate provost for human resources.
But Laura Drake, senior organizer for the statewide AFSCME Council 31, said Friday that Local 3700 had requested the move earlier this fall.
Typically, an administratorship is used when there's an internal problem with the local, but "in this case, it does not," said Jeff Bigelow, regional director for AFSCME Council 31, who supervises the union's Urbana field office.
Bigelow said union members were unhappy with the UI's stance in the last round of contract talks, which dragged on for a year, and with current wage negotiations for more than 150 positions involving new job titles or workers that recently joined Local 3700.
"I think they recognized that they were dealing with essentially a management at the university that required greater strength and power, so they want to help build that. That's really all that this is about," Bigelow said Friday. "They wanted to bring all the resources they had to bear on this problem.
"We'll be working with the local and leaders within the local to help build greater power, greater involvement, greater participation and greater awareness of what the university is doing," he said.
The contract covering all Local 3700 members expires in August 2014, and negotiations will likely begin next spring, Bigelow said.
"All of this leads up to that," he said.
AFSCME's field representative in Urbana recently took another job, but Bigelow and Drake said that had nothing to do with the move to an administratorship.
Drake has been named deputy administrator of the local, and Joe Guzynski, area field services director for AFSCME International in Minnesota, will serve as administrator.
Drake conceded the arrangement is unusual. But she said UI officials will continue to communicate with Local 3700 President Dorinda Miller — who works in the UI Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences — and copy both Drake and Guzynski on all communications.
"All it does is give them additional assistance," Drake said. "It's not really changing anything."
The university sent out a memo explaining the change to human resources managers across campus on Friday.
"Some of our business with unions is initiated by departments, and we wanted to respect the request of the union that any communications with them included not just the local president, but also the two local administrators," campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
Kaler said the current wage negotiations between the UI and Local 3700 involve 156 employees and two vacant positions in about a dozen job classifications, 118 of them in Extension jobs throughout the state. The talks have been going on since December 2012, she said.
The Extension positions include 42 work program participants and 76 community workers in Extension. Bigelow said their duties include educating youths, seniors and adults about nutrition and food budgets.
Other positions affected are 10 admissions and records representatives, three assistant records management officers, 17 customer services representatives, three program assistants, two retail services supervisors, one service officer supervisor, one special events facilitator and one vacant position for an interpreter for the hard of hearing, as well as two office support positions at Dixon Springs (one of them vacant), Kaler said.
Bigelow said the university has resisted giving union-level wages and benefits to new positions with the same or nearly identical titles to jobs already in the bargaining unit. He said some people in the Extension classifications have 20 years of service and still earn less than $12.40 an hour.
"The challenge is that you've got to look at those positions, those jobs, and compare and contrast them with similar jobs in this community or those communities," Kaler replied.
In the last contract talks, Bigelow said, the UI proposed eliminating or cutting back the pay "steps" in the union's contract, automatic raises that employees get as they move up a year on the wage schedule.
Drake said those step increases have helped hundreds of employees improve their standard of living. Local 3700 members are frustrated by what they see as a trend at the university to "reward people at the top with bigger and bigger salaries, and the lowest-paid people are falling further and further behind," she said.
Kaler said the union's claims are "neither fair nor accurate."
"We always bargain in good faith, and we pay the most competitive wages in this market for these types of positions," she said.