Unions rally for state college brethren
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | September 17,2013
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Castleton State College employee Bill Bunder of Poultney, foreground, holds sings with others Monday calling for improved wages, secure retirement, and other improvements for emplyees of the state college system, during a Vermont State Employees Association rally Monday at the Statehouse in Montpelier. About 100 attended the rally.
MONTPELIER — Members of the Vermont State Employees Association and other unions rallied on the steps of the Statehouse on Monday, hoping to gather support for higher wages and no cuts to retirement benefits for some staff at the Vermont State Colleges.
About 220 full-time and roughly 30 part-time administrative and service employees at four of the five state colleges — Castleton, Lyndon, Johnson and Vermont Technical College — have reached an impasse with the chancellor’s office on a new labor deal. Wages and cuts in the colleges’ contributions to retirement benefits and retirees’ health care premiums that were proposed by the chancellor’s office remain sticking points.
The previous four-year deal expired June 30. Negotiations, which fell apart in late July, took place for several months without success.
Workers at the fifth state college, Community College of Vermont, are either represented by a different union or are not unionized.
Several speakers at Monday’s rally, including Janis Henderson, the chairwoman of the Vermont State Colleges Staff Federation and a custodian at Lyndon State for the past 15 years, said that 60 percent of the workers seeking a new contract earn less than what the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office has determined to be a livable wage in Vermont.
“We feel that we’ve asked for nothing unreasonable,” Henderson said in an interview. “What we need to do is we need to help our members. We have 60 percent of them that are on state assistance. They need to be able to earn a livable wage.”
Administrative and service employees of the state college system start at an hourly wage of $9.65. The Joint Fiscal Office determined that a livable wage in Vermont for a single person with no dependents is $15.74 an hour.
Henderson said the chancellor’s office is looking to reduce the retirement contributions made by the Vermont State Colleges by 25 percent and is asking new retirees to begin paying half of their health care premiums, which average about $4,000 annually.
“That’s going to be difficult. It’s going to create a hardship,” she said.
The union is looking to start workers at $12.50 an hour, Henderson said.
“If I’m correct, that would cost the colleges maybe $80,000 … to bring them up in the beginning,” she said. “Given the money they spend, I think they’d be able to do that.”
The chancellor’s office said employees have received, on average, an annual 5.5 percent salary increase in each of the past four years. Additionally they have paid, on average, 7 percent of their health care premiums while receiving a 12 percent retirement contribution from VSC without any requirement for employees to match it. The chancellor’s plan would cut the contribution to 9 percent.
Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, P/D-West Topsham, said at Monday’s rally that she intends to introduce with Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, the Fair Compensation in Higher Education Act. That bill will call for at least a $12.50 hourly wage for state college employees.
It would also limit the wage gap between the highest-paid employees and the lowest-paid to a factor of eight, she said, and end six-figure “golden parachutes” for departing administrators.
“No employee of UVM or the Vermont State Colleges should receive more than five times the in-state tuition rate that too many Vermont families are struggling to pay,” Hatch Davis said. She is co-chairwoman of the Legislative Working Vermonters Caucus.
She said the caucus will also look to increase funding for the state colleges in the state budget.
“The caucus is prepared to actively fight for a budget that includes a livable wage and secure retirement for Vermont State Colleges workers,” Hatch Davis said. “We think state government should model good behavior and we should be a model employer. No employee of the state of Vermont should work full-time and still qualify for benefits targeted to lift low-income Vermonters out of poverty.”
With an impasse declared, the two sides are set to begin mediation in October. If that fails, the Vermont Labor Relations Board will enlist a fact finder and resolve the impasse based on the findings.
VSC spokesman Daniel Smith said Monday’s rally, attended by several dozen people, will not affect the position of the colleges.
“In our view, it neither helps or hurts the process. Regardless of the rally or any other public effort, we intend to approach the process in good faith, with a commitment to reaching an agreement that is fiscally responsible for the colleges, fair to employees and respectful of the economic realities facing the students and families who pay tuition,” he said in a statement.