10/14/07

In higher ed, unionizing not always the answer

­­­Approximately 3,500 University of Minnesota clerical, technical and health workers went on strike Sept. 5, calling for steeper salary increases in their next two-year contract. The workers represented under American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees returned to work after almost three weeks, with a tentative agreement that has yet to be voted on.

The strike shook the University of Minnesota campus, but the Macalester College community, aside from the occasional AFSCME strike supporter, has not felt any of the strike's tangible effects or influences. Judging by history, and the small percentage of unionized workers at Macalester, it probably never will.

According to Human Resources director Chuck Standfuss, only 60 Macalester employees-all facilities management workers-are unionized under Local 70 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. Café Mac employees and security guards are contracted employees working under Bon Appetit and American Security, respectively, are also unionized, but generally Macalester faculty or staff members are not.

"It's just an accident of history," Standfuss said. "Every worker in the U.S. has a right to organize ... it relates to size. At the U, the management is so much bigger. Here it is smaller, and more direct. People don't feel like they need intervention within the relationship between administration and staff."

Facilities management worker and union steward Kurt Olson agreed that Macalester lends to a better-than-average workplace, but also noted the benefit of union representation.

"Mac isn't a place that fires people, it's a great place to work," he said. "A lot of employees have been here for many, many years ... but you have to think, what would the management be if I didn't have the union to protect me?"

Non-unionized staff wages are established when trustees approve Macalester's budget annually in early January. Unlike union contracts, non-unionized staff's wages are not public, but as Standfuss said, Macalester has to keep a competitive market in mind when offering positions.

In lieu of unions, the Staff Advisory Committee is the one main portal through which faculty and staff can voice their grievances to the administration. SAC meets twice a month to discuss topics such as new professor orientation and security on campus, which SAC co-chair Allison Greenlee said were the two most pressing issues last year.

Even with SAC's representation, though, academic department coordinators decided to establish their own group a few years ago, with hopes of providing a consolidated voice specific to their position. Working toward this idea, academic department coordinators Patty Phalz and Mary Claire Shultz founded the Administered Office Professionals, an independent group composed only of other department coordinators. The group meets monthly to address grievances and concerns.

Unlike other clerical staff in 77 Mac or Weyerhauser, department coordinators are dispersed, both in physical placement and the individual duties of their jobs within their respective academic departments. "We all work as individuals without any peer group to relate to," Shultz said. "The AOP has been incredibly helpful."

The AOP has been trying to press the issue of a wage increase. Shultz said that while department coordinators' responsibilities increase with time, their wage remains stagnant.

"The system they have for our job classification doesn't include changes we have experienced," she said, remarking specifically on how technological advancements have prompted new duties, like e-mailing students and sometimes even creating web pages.

Shultz said that the AOP presented this issue to the administration, proposing the addition of a senior academic department coordinator position, which would include both more responsibility and pay.

Shultz said that Treasurer David Wheaton and Provost Diane Michelfelder supported their cause, but that the issue was eventually dropped. She said it should be revisited upon Chuck Standfuss' return to his regular job as Human Resources director.

"They listen to us, but there doesn't seem to be any action," she said. "We're kind of waiting on Mr. Standfuss to return."

Since last year, Standfuss has been spearheading the "Banner Project," which includes the launch of Macalester's 1600grand web portal.

Executive Assistant of the Institute for Global Citizenship Margaret Beegle worked as a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota for 20 years, but said she left because of the lack of advancement opportunities beyond her position.

She said that Macalester's workplace culture is much more favorable to that of the University, but the issue of a wage increase has been a "stickler" in her job.
Beegle said that she has thought about trying to organize clerical workers, but has not worked past the initial stages of research. She has not witnessed any other efforts to unionize at Macalester.

"I've been here eight or nine years and since then there hasn't been a drive…that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I just might be out of the loop."

Labor historian and history professor Peter Rachleff said that the lack of union presence at Macalester could also be attributed to a slew of labor laws enacted since the 1980s, which have tried to limit union organization. He cited the 1980 Supreme Court ruling of National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, which limited the right of faculty in private institutions to bargain collectively.

Executive Assistant for Administration and Finance Kenneth Tivey said that aside from labor laws, simply garnering sufficient support to organize could be difficult.
Before coming to Macalester, Tivey worked at the University of Minnesota as clerical support, but said that he left his job there in hopes of a "more stable, respectful workplace."

"I didn't want to have to go through another strike," he said. During this past University of Minnesota strike, he said, workers lost an average of $1,900 in pay for the nearly three weeks they were on the picket line.

When looking at Macalester, Tivey noticed a few Macalester workers were unionized, which he said is a "good thing." He also had heard that there were long-standing Macalester employees, a feature he looks for in a workplace.

Still, Tivey said that giving up his union membership was a very difficult decision. Now at Macalester, he said he hopes to investigate staff grievance procedures and committees, such as SAC, and to evaluate how much clout they actually hold.
"I don't know enough about the politics of working here yet and will be investigating that," he said.

For the unionized workers at Macalester, though, the issue of wage increase is an entirely different story, carried out in a completely different manner.

Every three years, stewards, or representatives of the Macalester IOUE chapter, work with their union business agent to negotiate a renewal of their contract with Standfuss and Facilities Management Director Mark Dickinson. Typically, Standfuss said, the contracts look similar, with small alterations based on the school's budget and the greater economy.

During spring negotiations for the 2007-2010 contracts, though, disagreements over pension allocation lengthened the negotiation process, drawing it out well into the summer.

The parties began to negotiate the contract early in spring semester, but the extra time, Olson said, was not as helpful as they had anticipated, only diminishing any sense of urgency in establishing an agreement.

Standfuss approached the talks through "interest based bargaining," an alternative negotiating approach in which both parties submit their initial proposals, and then work together to meet all needs.
"There is far more direct contract between all members of the negotiating teams than in traditional bargaining," Standfuss wrote in an email. "There is still give-and-take, but the hope is that the give-and-take is more informed and leads to lasting agreement and understanding between the parties."

But, Olson said, instead of progressing with face-to-face negotiations, the stewards' meetings with Standfuss eventually stalled in the late spring, after he opted to meet only with their business agent.

"Legally, he only has to deal with the business agent," Olson said. "But we were upset. We thought he should keep talking to us. We're the guys."

In the end, Olson said, the workers received what they wanted-four percent of their wages per hour now go into a pension fund, totaling about $460 a month.
The contract in general, Olson said, looks the same as it has in years past. It is just the negotiation process that did not go "as well this time."

"People make choices, friendships," Rachleff, who followed the negotiations closely, said. "I think some people felt lied to and manipulated by Mr. Standfuss."
He continued: "I think Macalester has a responsibility to be an exemplary employer. We have an obligation in what soda we serve in the cafeteria…and how the workers are treated. Everything we do is part of our mission."

Standfuss asserted in an e-mail that he is legally "obligated to negotiate through the workers' chosen representative, their business agent," but that he did also "meet directly with the workers, with their agent present."

(media.www.themacweekly.com)

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