URBANA — Negotiations between the visiting academic professionals union and the University of Illinois have reached an impasse.
Or have they?
In a recent email sent to visiting academics, a UI administrator described the parties as having reached an impasse; however, the union's chief negotiator disagreed with that characterization and said they are "hours away" from reaching an agreement.
Alan Bilansky, union spokesperson and chief negotiator, also called the university's recent mass email to members an attempt to drive a wedge between members and union leaders.
The two sides have been bargaining since July. Representatives from the union and university are expected to meet again on Friday.
Visiting academic professionals work on year-to-year appointments and can include a variety of employees, including instructors, researchers, counselors, information technology specialists and more. They unionized in 2005 and currently number 301 on campus, according to Bilansky.
Their most recent contract expired Aug. 15, 2011.
University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university presented its "last, best and final" offer on March 30, at a meeting that included a federal mediator.
"We think our offer is a fair offer and hope the VAP union leadership will present the offer to their membership for serious consideration. Any further university action will be dependent in part upon what response, if any, is received from the VAP union," she said in a written statement to The News-Gazette.
Elyne Cole, the associate provost for human resources, recently sent a message to visiting academic professionals warning them that if the union does not accept the last offer, "no action will be taken related to pay increases for VAP-represented employees." She also said employees could contact the UI's negotiator or union leaders.
The union's rejection of the university's last, best and final offer leaves both parties at impasse, she wrote.
"Are we at an impasse? We're still trying to figure that out," Bilansky said. He called Cole's recent message confusing, and said what's needed is another sit-down with the university negotiators.
In response to Cole's email, union leaders sent their own message to members saying it was their view that the parties are not at an impasse. They also outlined their reasons for rejecting the offer.
If the university says they're at an impasse, it should impose the terms of their last proposal and the union is then free to strike, Bilansky said.
The most recent offer included a 3 percent increase retroactive to the employee's individual appointment renewal date in the academic year of 2011-2012.
One sticking point for the union is that the university, according to Bilansky, is asking the union to withdraw the unfair labor practice complaint it filed last year. The union filed a complaint with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board after the university gave raises averaging 3 percent to most university employees. However, at the time, those raises were not given to members of the union.
Bilansky said the union is not eager to sign a document that could mean sometime in the future, if the university discriminates against visiting academic professionals, they would not be able to file another unfair labor complaint to fight it.
The union also wants to include merit pay as an option for managers, Bilansky said. That was not included in the last offer, he said.
He also said with Cole's recent message, the administration appears to be attempting to drive a wedge between union leadership and union rank-and-file members.
"We have not heard from any VAPs demanding that we accept that offer. In fact, what we've heard back has been largely supportive," Bilansky said.
On the recent email, Kaler said, university officials "felt it was important to communicate directly with our employees regarding the university's proposals. The university has previously communicated with its employees on a variety of labor matters, in accordance with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act."
Meeting regularly since the summer, Bilansky said, the two parties have made significant progress and "we're hours away," from coming to an agreement.
Kaler said university officials have remained in contact with the union and are willing to discuss their "last, best and final offer at any time."
The union has a regularly scheduled meeting for noon Saturday to elect leadership. Bilansky said he also expects negotiations will be discussed. The meeting will be in room 1136 on the first floor of the Foreign Languages Building, 707 S. Mathews Ave., U.