Recent negotiations between the union representing the 49 Physical Plant workers on campus and the University have been causing controversy. On Wednesday, a federal mediator facilitated contract negotiations between University administrators and the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 153, a branch of the AFL-CIO. According to union representatives, the negotiations have been ongoing since the last week of June before their three-year contract expired on June 30.
“We’ve come quite a way at the table even though we don’t hear that [from the other side],” said Chief Steward of Local 153 Pete McGurgan. “The attitude is that we’re being stubborn.”
Although administrators declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations, Vice President of Finance John Meerts shared his general impressions of Wednesday’s meeting in a written statement to The Argus.
“The union and the University met Wednesday and had a very productive negotiating session facilitated by the federal mediator,” he wrote. “We want to continue this positive momentum and appreciate the union’s continued constructive engagement.”
McGurgan said that he and other union leaders believe that the three primary issues at stake in the negotiations are wage increases, the future of a tuition benefits for employee dependants and the installation of GPS tracking devices in Walkie Talkies and vehicles.
According to McGurgan, the University is currently offering a zero percent wage increase for Physical Plant workers in 2010, a 1.5 percent increase in 2011, and a two percent increase in 2012. The union is asking for a 3.5 percent wage increase in 2010, three percent in 2011, and three percent in 2012.
McGurgan said that the administration has raised their offer for 2012 wages by five percent since the beginning of negotiations and the union has lowered their request for 2010 by 1.5 percent.
Union representatives cited an increase in health insurance premiums instated in the last contract as a reason for their requested wage increase. Starting in 2007, workers were required to pay 33 percent of the insurance premium rather than the previous 15 percent. Thirty-eight of the 49 Physical Plant workers currently opt into the University health insurance policy. Local 153 Steward and University Painter Kim Krueger said that this increase was especially hard on those at the base of the pay scale, which starts at $36,087 annually.
“[The administration] thought that absorbing that increase in [the cost of] medical benefits was something that was relatively easy to do with the wage package that they offered last time, and in reality it was something that didn’t work,” Krueger said. “There are some people that are really hurting from that.”
McGurgan and Krueger said that in addition to the decrease in their earnings resulting from the raised insurance cost, they have been given fewer opportunities to work overtime hours. They blame this on what they see as an increasing reliance on outside contractors rather than in-house maintenance staff.
Director of Media Relations and Public Relations David Pesci said that he could not confirm this trend.
“It’s kind of hard for us to justify where we’re at when we see all of these people walking around doing our jobs,” Krueger said.
Data compiled by union representatives from past University phone directories illustrates that the number of Physical Plant union workers has decreased from 86 in 1994 to 49 in 2010. Krueger said that she believes this decrease has been the result of natural attrition and the decision of 11 Physical Plant employees to accept Voluntary Separation Packages during 2009.
However, while the number of workers has declined, in 2008 Physical Plant became responsible for the maintenance of what Krueger estimates to be an additional 52 buildings that were formerly contracted out to the firm Rumberger & Company.
“We’ve taken on a whole lot of new buildings, more work, and as best we can rag-tag do it with the people left in a 40-hour week,” McGurgan said.
Union representatives also expressed concern about the quality of the work performed by many outside contractors.
“We find that a large percentage of the things the contractors get involved in, we end up following up, and repairing, or re-doing or revamping,” McGurgan said.
In addition to the discussion about wages and overtime, the administration has proposed a clause that would authorize them to cap the tuition benefit for employee dependents at the 2010-2011 rate of $20,907 annually, rather than allowing it to increase in proportion to Wesleyan tuition prices, according to McGurgan.
Currently, this benefit provides that the University will contribute a proportion, or up to half of Wesleyan’s current tuition price (excluding room and board) to the tuition cost of any four-year accredited university for the children of Physical Plant workers.
“Wesleyan says they’re need-blind for students applying to Wesleyan, but they’re not need-blind for the families that work here,” said McGrugan. “If Wesleyan had implemented this is 1994, that benefit would only be $7,000 today.”
Ten employee dependents currently benefit from this program.
The representatives said that the third major issue up for debate is the installation of GPS tracking devices in radios and vehicles. According to McGurgan, federal law mandates that the issue be decided in negotiations.
He said that, in negotiations, the administration cited the benefit of a GPS system locating workers in case of a medical emergency. However, McGurgan said he worries about other uses for the devices.
“We think it’s silly, but we also think that aside from it being silly, we don’t want it to be used in a disciplinary way,” he said.
Krueger asserts that despite the challenges of the negotiation process, she remains optimistic about her job at the University.
“What it comes down to is our commitment to the community, the students and the faculty and staff,” she said. “That’s the reason that we’re here, that’s the reason we take pride in our jobs.”