USM union looks to pressure university system into giving cost-of-living raises

Posted Jan. 22, 2013, at 10:36 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 22, 2013, at 5:16 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Members of the union that represents faculty at the University of Southern Maine voted overwhelmingly Friday to engage in a “work-to-rule” arrangement in an attempt to pressure the university into agreeing to a new labor contract that includes 4.5 percent cost-of-living raises.

“Work to rule” means that faculty will continue to perform their work, but will abide exactly by employment rules as described in their contract. According to the USM chapter of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, Friday’s vote, which was supported by 93 percent of the union members present, means that faculty will cease doing voluntary work “that strictly benefits the administration,” such as serving on committees and participating in meetings.

“Under work-to-rule, faculty will continue to serve our students through teaching, advising and mentoring, and conduct research, participate in peer reviews of our colleagues, etc.,” said USM AFUM president Ed Collom, an associate professor of sociology, in the press release. “Faculty perform a great deal of administrative service that doesn’t affect students, scholarship, or the Southern Maine community, and is not articulated in the contract. That’s what work-to-rule stops until we have a reasonable contract.”

Collom said approximately 50 of the union local’s 292 members were present for Friday’s vote, which he said easily constituted a quorum under the local’s bylaws.

According to Tracy Bigney, chief human resources and organization development officer for the University of Maine System, all of the system’s approximately 1,200 full-time faculty are working under the provisions of their previous contract, which expired on June 30, 2011. The university and union are negotiating a single contract on behalf of all full-time faculty within the system. They are the only one of six unions representing university workers who are working under an expired contract.

Local unions at university campuses in Farmington, Presque Isle and Machias already approved work-to-rule last year, according to Collom, which affects their involvement in everything from completing surveys from the administration to sitting on committees to participating in faculty senates under the system’s shared governance model.

“The administration is highly reliant on the voice of the faculty,” said Collom, who said participating in work-to-rule is voluntary for union members. “We see this as sort of the last step. … We use this as a tactic to put pressure on the trustees. Some faculty will do what they always do and continue on with this volunteer service work. Other faculty will not. They’ll follow the will of the vote.”

AFUM, like many public sector unions, is prohibited from striking by law.

According to the union, faculty have not had a raise since March 2009, when they received 1.5 percent raises. Salary is one of about 10 issues that have been at the center of he negotiations, though Collom and Bigney said most of the other issues have been agreed upon. Among those issues, according to Collom, is that union members’ health insurance premiums will increase by about 7.5 percent and members will be required to participate in a workplace wellness program aimed at improving employees’ overall health.

According to Bigney, the average base salary for full-time faculty within the system, without benefits, is nearly $70,000. The lowest pay that an incoming associate professor can earn, according to the labor contract, is about $44,000 per year. Bigney said trustees so far have opted to hold the line on salary increases because of financial pressure on the system, including its vow last year to hold tuition flat and Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to flat-fund higher education in the upcoming biennial budget. At the same time, said Bigney, average family income in Maine is decreasing and the economy is suffering.

A fact-finding panel appointed by the Maine Labor Relations Board recommended a 4.5 percent cost-of-living raise for university system faculty over two years, citing approximately $173 million in unrestricted net assets at the end of 2012 as evidence that the system can afford it. That represents middle ground between the union’s initial request for 8 percent increases and the university’s counterproposal of 0.5 percent pay increases.

Bigney said the next step in the process, should the contract impasse continue, is the appointment of a binding arbitration panel which can make decisions on everything except salary, benefits and pensions.

“The university does not believe that [a salary increase of 4.5 percent over two years] is appropriate in this economy,” said Bigney, who said there are currently no negotiating sessions scheduled. “It is not prudent given the university’s resources.”

But Collom said the union will hold fast to its goals.

“It would be nice to avoid all this and just have a settlement so we can all move on,” said Collom. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve had to take this step but we don’t see any other option since the trustees have not been reasonable. Seemingly at this point they see us only as numbers on a spreadsheet.”

The University of Maine System trustees are scheduled to meet in Bangor on Jan. 28. According to the agenda for that meeting, the full board’s meeting will begin in executive session “to discuss personnel and collective bargaining issues.”

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