Campus clerical workers soundly rejected a University contract offer Saturday following months of stalled negotiations over wage increases that employees will receive over the next several years.
The 533–47 vote was the first time that members of Teamsters local 743, which represents more than 1,000 University clerical employees as well as warehouse and forklift operators, have rejected a University contract offer since the union was formed on campus in 1980.
The proposed contract offered workers a two–percent wage increase effective retroactively to March, followed by a two–percent increase effective this month and a three–percent increase each March through 2009.
Throughout the negotiations, union representatives had been unwilling to accept a proposal offering less than four-percent wage increases each year. Workers additionally sought other improvements to the contract, including stronger job security terms, benefits for laid-off workers, and the reinstatement of step-wage increases, which automatically raise pay based on performance and length of employment.
But union representatives relented on these terms and instead focused on the annual wage increases after little progress was made during the discussions.
“Without step increases, a lot of our members can hardly make ends meet,” said Gary Mamlin, a union steward who works as an acquisitions assistant at Regenstein Library and was directly involved with the negotiations. “The union withdrew proposals for job security, laid off worker benefits and step increases in the interest of moving the negotiations along.” Because of these concessions, he said, “we were determined to get more than three percent” each year.
Negotiations reached an impasse early in the summer. “They were going back and forth and back and forth and I said, ‘we should just ask them for their final proposal,’” said Reginald McCracken, another union steward and a project assistant at the Graduate School of Business. Several union representatives have said that the University refused to offer a final contract despite repeated requests.
“That is an untrue statement,” said Gwynne Dilday, associate vice president of human resources management. “It had not been a protracted period of time that the union had been demanding a final offer.”
In August, a federal mediator was called in to ease both sides into an agreement, with little success. According to Mamlin, on several occasions during the discussions, the union’s lead negotiator ended the meeting on account of University council Joseph Tilson’s brash manner, who allegedly at times referred to union proposals as “garbage.”
“The union lawyer got so offended by the University lawyer’s abrasiveness...that he just ended the meeting,” Mamlin said.
Tilson did not respond to the MAROON’s request for comment.
The most recent contract covering the workers expired in March, but it was renewed pending the resolution of the negotiations, which ended when the University made its final offer September 19.
The vote was conducted after lawyers for the University presented union representatives with the contract and imposed a September 22 deadline to accept it.
“They told us that if we didn’t ratify Saturday at the latest, the offer would be withdrawn,” Mamlin said.
“We viewed that as a pretty contemptuous gesture on their part…. Nonetheless, we did what we could do to inform the members” of the offer and deadline, Mamlin said.
Union campaign volunteers contacted members who gathered on campus Saturday to vote on the proposed contract. Mamlin said that the assembly of members was the largest he has seen in 25 years and attributed the turn-out in large part to the perception by members that the University, by offering such a short timeline, was acting in bad faith.
“Heretofore the University would always ask the union how much time it needed,” he said.
“This sends a loud and clear message that 90 percent of workers rejected a weak offer that the University tried to push through in two days,” said Joe Sexauer, an active union member who works in the department of psychiatry.
In rejecting the University’s offer, the union effectively opened up the option to strike. While a strike does not appear imminent, whisperings among both members and union leadership have indicated that it is a possibility, McCracken said.
“To be honest, yes, there has been talk of it,” he said.
McCracken theorized that one potential reason for the absence of an offer until now was a fear by the administration that workers would strike before students’ return to campus last week, creating tremendous difficulties during a crucial administrative time of the year.
“We have not been notified by the union that there is going to be a strike,” Dilday said, pointing out that the union is required to give the University 10 days’ notice in such a case.
“We’re going to go back to the table and start to talk again,” she said. “We want to provide a good living wage to all of our employees, both union and non-union.”
But Mamlin, who has worked for the University since 1979, believes the University could significantly improve its offer.
“The University could easily give us four percent a year…. It’s equally a matter of principle because we know the University can do better,” he said, citing recent large donations that could potentially free up money in other sectors of the University.
Dilday said recent donations do not necessarily make more money available for wages because donations are usually targeted. “Unrestricted funds are very rare,” she said.
Negotiations over the wage increases will continue, and union representatives have said that they are committed to the four percent previously demanded.
For the University’s part, Dilday said, “we want all of our employees to be satisfied here at the University.”
A student-organized protest at the administration building in support of the clerical workers is scheduled for today.