Stolid-faced trustees walked past the picket line ignoring the shouts and blaring music. An insistent murmur could be heard among the demonstrators. Quietly the crowd marched towards the meeting inside.

The scene of protest was not Seattle or Washington but Upton-Hastings Hall on the Gorham campus. Nearly 50 University workers gathered for a meeting of the Board of Trustees for the University of Maine system. The board meetings rotate among the UMS campuses and are held at USM at 18-month intervals. The workers, some on their lunch break, were there to protest the lack of a contract for about 1,000 professional staff members who work throughout the University of Maine system.

Members of the professional staff work as librarians, computer technicians, engineers and in a host of other occupations. Many of the positions require advanced degrees.

Contract negotiations between the professional staff members, represented by the University of Maine Professional Staff Association (UMPSA), and UMS have continued since UMPSA’s old contract ran out over a year and a half ago. The impasse results from disputes over a wage increase and medical benefits.

The professional staff union originally requested a 9 percent raise. The union is now willing to settle for an 8.5 percent raise over the next two years as recommended by an independent fact-finding panel appointed by the Maine Labor Relations Board. However, the Board of Trustees is offering a raise of 7.5 percent. Many union members are insulted by the offer.

“I’ve made way more money taking care of state prisoners than I do taking care of students,” said Rosemary Prentice, nurse practitioner.

Despite their anger the protesters did nothing to disrupt the meeting. Once inside the Hastings Formal Lounge, UMPSA members and members of other organizations there in solidarity, silently held signs while television cameras and photographers recorded the event. Board members continued their discussions and called an executive session that barred the public from the chamber. Union members quietly filed out; they were let back in a short time later.

Bruce Littlefield, head of the UMPSA negotiating team, expressed his desire for the dispute to be settled quickly.

“It all depends on [UMS]. We’ve been willing to settle since December,” said Littlefield.

Littlefield pointed to the report of the fact-finding panel issued in August and urged the Board of Trustees to accept its recommendations. The union is prevented from striking by law. According to Littlefield the professional staff’s commitment to service has ruled out other kinds of labor actions.

“Their job is to help. The students are counting on them, so there is no such thing as a `slowdown,'” said Littlefield.

David Lane, chief negotiator for the Board of Trustees, called the proposed 7.5 percent wage increase “very fair” and said that it was in line with what other employees had received. Lane admitted some surprise at the fact-finding panel’s suggestion of an 8.5 percent raise. He said that the decision was not unanimous and added that such reports are seldom accepted as a whole. Lane said that significant progress had been made on other issues such as health care costs and salary structure.

Recently both sides held extensive meetings with Maine Labor Relations Board appointed mediator Don Ziegenbein. If Ziegenbein concludes that no further progress can be made he will send the negotiations to a phase called interest arbitration, which would be binding on all non-monetary issues, excluding issues involving money such as a wage increase. David Lane said that after this phase the University system’s last standing wage increase offer would go into effect and the dispute would be settled.

This is little comfort to professional staff members.

“We are grossly underpaid to begin with. The University is becoming an entry level position,” said Casandra Fitzherbert, associate head of Access Services and Interlibrary Loan.

Staff Writer John McCarthy can be contacted at [email protected]

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