University and faculty union near agreement

Posted on December 01, 2013 in News, Uncategorized
By Sidney Dritz

An agreement on faculty union contracts may be closer than it has been in two and a half years after a tentative agreement was reached in November.

The proposed contract covers a four year span, including the past two and a half years and a year and half into the future.

“I feel like we’re finally turning the ship around,” said Christy Hammer, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences and president of the USM branch of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine.

The agreement was reached on Nov. 15, and was the final addition to the November Board of Trustees meeting on November 17 and 18. On the second day of the meeting, the motion to allow the Chancellor to ratify the proposed contract passed unanimously.

“It’s a tentative agreement until all parties agree,” said psychology Associate Professor John Broida, who is the USM representative to the AFUM bargaining committee. The next step, Broida said, is the Dec. 7 meeting of the AFUM bargaining committee, who will vote on whether accept or reject the agreement. No matter how they vote, the contract will go on to be voted on by the union members. If the union members do not approve the agreement, the contract will go back into negotiations. “The idea of the council is that they have all the information and will be able to help others,” Broida said.

The contract, which has been stalled largely over questions of pay raises and health benefits, comes in the context of budget shortfalls across the UMS. In a press release sent out following the Board of Trustees meeting Nov. 18, Leonard said, “The settlement with AFUM occurs in the context of an overall Trustee strategic change package designed to close a significant financial gap while meeting mission responsibilities … Costs associated with this agreement will not be borne by students or their families, but by reductions and efficiencies.”

One of the provisions in the contract which addresses the system’s fiscal situation is a financial incentive for older faculty to retire, with a greater incentive for retirement at the end of the current year, and a lesser incentive for retiring at the end of the 2014 to 2015 year.

“One thing [in the contract] many faculty think will help rebuild a stronger USM in the future is that there is an enhanced retirement incentive,” Hammer said.

Broida also mentioned that the retirement incentive could have a significant effect on the UMS. “If the contract is ratified, we may see a significant turnover in faculty.” Broida said

“Ultimately, that may free up some resources so that maybe we can hire more faculty,” said Hammer, echoing a discussion at the Nov. 8 faculty senate meeting, where engineering Professor Carlos Luck expressed concern that it was becoming too late in the year to begin searching for new faculty members for the next year, and that no new faculty searches are currently under way.

Broida expanded on that concern, explaining the reason for the retirement incentives. “One of the concerns of the faculty and administration is how old the faculty are getting.”

Broida said the tentative agreement follows the recommendations of the arbitration report which was released in September as the last step recommended by the Maine Labor Relations Board for the span of the first half of the tentative agreement, through June 2013. The period of the contract after June 2013 was not covered in the arbitration report, and required further negotiations.

“The last big obstacle was healthcare,” Broida said. The question of where the burden of payment for increasing healthcare costs would be assigned required a significant amount of negotiation and, said Broida, “It was interesting to watch people who know numbers get very confused by the final solution.”

The final agreement, which, Broida said, may be used as a pattern for future health care agreements with other unions in the UMS, is based on the projection of a four percent increase in health care costs for each year covered by the contract. The contract says that for the first 4.5 percent increase per year, 90 percent of that increase will be paid by the administration and 10 percent will be paid by the faculty, assuming certain qualifying conditions are met. If the qualifying conditions are not met, 80 percent will be paid by the administration and 20 percent will be paid by the faculty. If the cost of health care rises above 4.5 percent up to 13 percent, the cost will be split, paid half by the administration and half by the faculty. Any increase in healthcare costs higher than 13 percent will be paid by the faculty.

“It’s wonderful that we got the contract tentatively settled,” said Hammer. She went on to describe her surprise on seeing the results of a survey conducted by AFUM which showed that a number of faculty had needed to take on summer jobs over the course of the two and a half year contract negotiations without a pay increase. “Nobody goes into higher ed to get wealthy,” Hammer said, mentioning that many younger faculty have their own student loans to pay off.

The agreement as it stands, if approved, will provide a retroactive pay raise of one percent for the 2011 through 2012 school year for any faculty who were employed by the UMS at that time, a two percent raise retroactively from Jan. 2013, and two more two percent raises to be implemented June of 2013 and Sept 2014 respectively.

The date of the union vote on the contract following the Dec. 7 bargaining committee vote has not yet been set, but Broida said he expects the vote will take place in early January.