December 24, 2003
The Union of Electrical Workers, Local 767 (UE 767), which includes workers in the library, cafeteria, maintenance and housekeeping at Antioch College, and the college recently agreed on a new contract after several months of negotiations.
The union and the college began negotiating on June 27 and finally reached an agreement in late November. Suzette Castonguay, the director of human resources for Antioch University and a member of the college’s negotiating team, said that the union and the college met about 20 times before coming to terms on a new three-year contract.
“I think we knew it was going to be kind of a tough time,” Castonguay said of the negotiation process.
“They knew that money was really tight,” she said of the union. “We kind of gave them a heads-up before we even started meetings.”
“We all swallowed something that was less than tasty to help the college out for the next few years,” said Steven Duffy, a union member and former union representative who runs the circulation desk at the college library.
In late September, UE 767 met to consider the changes to their working contract that the college had proposed. Dennis Painter, a national representative for UE and a longtime member of Local UE 767, expressed concern that some of the proposed changes would negatively affect employees, according to the Antioch Record, the college’s student newspaper.
The workers unanimously rejected the university’s proposal after discussing the changes and “turned to a plan of action, leaving the option of a strike open,” the Record reported. Union members then unanimously agreed to give the union’s executive board the authority to take action as they saw fit. There was no strike, but negotiations dragged on for two more months.
Castonguay said that talks finally got to the point where management decided to put a final offer on the table. The college gave the union a week to decide whether to accept the contract, which was an inclusive offer, meaning the union had to either accept or reject it in its entirety.
Carole Braun, a member of the executive board of UE 767, said that the union negotiating team took the college’s final offer to the union membership on Nov. 25, at which time the members voted to accept it.
Braun said the union knows that “the college is not in the best shape financially, and we didn’t expect a lot.” She added that the college pulled the changes union members found most objectionable off the table before making its final offer.
Castonguay said the college “pulled lots of things off the table” over the course of the negotiations. There were items in the initial proposal that the college considered less important than others, she said, while other parts of the proposed contract were unclear and required rewriting or corrections.
“The big thing that happened in negotiations, I think,” Braun said, “was that the college was unhappy with health care costs.” The administration had proposed in June that employees pay 25 percent of their insurance costs, but later dropped the proposal and replaced it with a request that employees take a cut in benefits to counter rising premiums.
The union found cheaper health insurance with the steelworkers’ union, which Braun said “saved the college a lot of money.” By finding cheaper health insurance, the union succeeded in guaranteeing that its members won’t have to pay health insurance premiums for another year, she said.
Under the new contract, if insurance costs rise above 12 percent after this year, the union will have to decide either to pay the difference, or change the union’s coverage so it doesn’t exceed 12 percent, she said.
Castonguay said that the college was “really concerned about the management rights clause,” which ensures that Antioch would be able to hire people who could do the jobs that needed to be filled.
According to the Record, the college had also requested authority to revise workers’ job descriptions “at will,” but Castonguay said that negotiators did not spend much time discussing the revision of job descriptions. Most union employees’ job descriptions are not in the contract, she said, noting that the college and the union can renegotiate job descriptions at any time. She said that management wouldn’t change job descriptions “without sitting down with the union.”
Union members were also concerned that the college would use other proposed changes to subcontract nonunion workers who would replace union employees indefinitely, the Record reported. Castonguay said the new contract does allow the college to subcontract jobs if union workers are not available. But, she added, “it was not put in there to displace union workers,” only to ensure that the college could complete work if a union worker couldn’t do it.
The final contract also allows the college to hire someone for a position based on his or her qualifications, which had caused union members some consternation because they wanted members to be offered new positions based on seniority. “Seniority does apply” in the new contract, Castonguay said, “but it applies hand-in-hand with the person having the skill and ability to perform the job.”
Braun indicated that the union is glad negotiations are over. “I think everybody’s very relieved to have a contract, and the workers I’ve talked to are very happy to have their health insurance paid for another year,” she said.
Castonguay said that the college is “very pleased” with the new contract and with the new medical plan the union found.
Braun said union members’ solidarity helped them through the negotiations. “We really appreciate the students and people in the community,” he added. “They came and offered us support.” During negotiations, the college accused the union of irresponsibly bringing students into college-union conflicts in the past, Braun said, but during the recent negotiations, “we didn’t feel like we came to the point where we needed that. We kept students from reacting.”
Castonguay said that “the union should be commended” for doing what was best for its members and for signing the final contract with the college. Both sides negotiated in good faith, she said.
The final version of the contract has been ratified by the union but has not yet been signed. Castonguay said it would likely be signed during the first week of January. At that point, she said, the contract will be disseminated and will become a public document.
—Evelyn La Croix