Faculty contract settlement may be in sight

Posted on September 16, 2013 in News
By Sidney Dritz

There are 34 articles in the University of Maine faculty’s last, expired contract, but in the two and a half years since that contract expired, the hold-up in negotiating the next contract has been narrowed down to one main issue: salary.

The USM representative on the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine bargaining committee, psychology Associate Professor John Broida, said of the UMS’s refusal to raise faculty salaries to what AFUM deems an acceptable amount, “They have the money. In the arbitration hearing, they admitted that they have the money. It makes no sense to me.”

On Sept. 20 and 27, the AFUM will once again meet with the University of Maine System to renegotiate the full-time faculty contract that expired on June 30, 2011. Since that time, the UMS and AFUM have undergone mediation, a fact-finding panel appointed by the Maine Labor Relations Board and the Interest Arbitration hearings in an attempt to come to an agreement.

        “Obviously this has been a long process,” said the UMS’s treasurer and vice-chancellor for finance and administration, Rebecca Wyke. Since the previous contract’s expiration, the university and AFUM have undergone every last resort process designed by the Maine Labor Relations Board to resolve a contract dispute, and still they have been unable to come to an agreement. In 2012, AFUM commissioned a report which concluded that the faculty of the UMS receive significantly lower salaries than the faculty at comparable institutions. AFUM has moved for a partial strike called “work-to-rule”, where faculty members refrain from doing any extra work not strictly their jobs, and it has been enacted on four campuses including USM. In response, the UMS filed an official complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board. “I’m just very hopeful that we’ll be able to reach an agreement,” said Wyke.

Wyke is not alone in that hope. “I’m optimistic, it may happen,” said Broida when asked whether he thinks a decision will be reached in the upcoming meetings.

Broida predicted, however, that this could just be the beginning of another round of negotiations. “I believe the administration would like to do a little more,” Broida said. He predicted that the administration would push for a three year contract, rather than the two year contract they have been working on and additional changes in health care benefits not part of the conversation previously.

        The upcoming meetings come in the wake of the release of the report compiled based on the Interest Arbitration hearings, which took place on July 15 through 17, 2013. The arbitration hearings were a three day process in which both the UMS and AFUM submitted documents to support their arguments to a panel of three lawyers: one neutral, one for the university and one for the union. The report that is available on the AFUM website is of their findings.

While the report is not binding in terms of financial decisions, Wyke is hopeful that it will help the bargaining teams come to a conclusion. After the Interest Arbitration hearings, Wyke said of AFUM, “We felt that they clearly understood that the system is facing some financial challenges.”

USM English Professor Eve Raimon described faculty feeling on the subject of salary negotiations differently. “We know that the system has acknowledged that it does have the money,” Raimon said. “The faculty feel undervalued.”

“The university has tried to give the other unions roughly the same increase in pay,” Broida said. AFUM is the union for the full-time faculty for the UMS, but there are other unions for professional staff, for part time faculty, service and maintenance and numerous other groups employed by the UMS. He also explained that the reason AFUM’s contract negotiation is taking so much longer than those for other unions in the UMS is that the other unions have accepted that increase. Indeed, UMPSA, the union for professional staff, signed a contract which specifies the same salary increase the UMS has offered to AFUM: 0.7 percent in 2011, and an additional 0.7 percent in 2012.

AFUM and the UMS are working out contracts now covering a period of time which is already over. The contract which does not exist yet would have ended in June, and all salary decisions made will be enacted retroactively. On the other hand the UMPSA signed a contract for the same period on Oct. 25, 2012. UMPSA were the last union aside from AFUM in the UMS to finalize a contract.

In the “Award and Decision by the Arbitration Panel,” a report available on the AFUM website, AFUM asserted that, in the section on salary raises, the UMS’s net assets grew by 182 percent between 2001 and 2012. The UMS countered by bringing up declining enrollment and the way the pattern of declining enrollment is projected to continue in years to come.

        In the report, AFUM also emphasized that UMS faculty salaries do not compare to the salaries of faculty at other New England public universities. The UMS responded with the concern that it was not a fair basis for comparison because Maine is a poorer state. To that, the Arbitration board introduced the fact that, of New England Land Grant Universities, only the University of Connecticut has a higher credit rating than the UMS. As the report says of documents that were introduced as evidence to the proceedings, “the parties focus on the parts of these reports that support their respective positions.”

        The arbitrators’ final recommendation, as set forward in the report, is higher than the UMS’s proposed raise of 0.7 percent retroactive from the 2012 fiscal year and 0.7 percent retroactive from 2013, but lower than both AFUM’s original request and the recommendation of the previous year’s fact-finding report. AFUM first requested a four percent raise in 2012 and another four percent in 2013, and then requested the salary increase recommended by the fact-finding report of a 1.5 percent increase for 2012 and a three percent increase for 2013. The recommendation of the Arbitration Board is for a one percent increase effective 2011 and a two percent increase backdated to the first pay period after Jan. 2013.

According to Broida, one factor which may speed up the timeline towards a decision is the fact that the state legislature has approved a bond package which includes funding for education. The package will  be voted on in the upcoming November election. “There is good pressure on the administration to resolve the situation with the unions,” Broida said, speculating that it doesn’t look good for the UMS faculty to be working without a contract. Without public confidence in the university system, Broida said, “the bonds may not pass.”

        Associate Professor of social and behavioral sciences Christy Hammer became USM’s new AFUM president on July 1, succeeding the former president, Professor Ed Collum. Hammer said, in a statement to the Free Press, that it was difficult to find someone to take the position at this point in time, which Hammer described as, “a time of such dire circumstances for public higher education all over the country, including here in Maine and certainly at USM.” Hammer expressed the belief that, “the work of faculty, while not seeming to be understood at all by the current Board of Trustees, is key to student success at USM and its worth fighting for.”