By Emily Landgraf
While students struggle to balance classes, extracurricular activities and their social lives, they probably don’t realize that their professors and administrators are struggling with a very different issue: the negotiation of the faculty union contracts.
All Rider employees who are members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) are currently working under an extended contract, which is set to expire next Friday. The agreement originally expired on Aug. 31 and has been extended until the end of September, so that the parties can continue to negotiate a new contract. However, the process has been slow, according to both the union and the administration.
AAUP is the union on campus that represents the faculty, including adjuncts, coaches and professional librarians at Rider.
Issues on the table for discussion include compensation, how academic decisions are made at Rider and the role of faculty in those decisions.
“There are a large number of very complex issues on the table and there are no short cuts to finding mutually acceptable resolutions,” Robert Stoto, associate vice president of Human Resources & Affirmative Action and chief negotiator for the administration, stated in an e-mail sent Thursday. “Much has changed in the world since this agreement was last negotiated in 2007 and it is important that both sides take this opportunity to thoughtfully review how the terms of the agreement impact the University’s ability to remain a vibrant, student-centered institution.”
Dr. Jeffrey Halpern, Contract Administrator and Chief Grievance Officer for AAUP and a sociology professor, said that he is less optimistic than he hoped he would be about the negotiation process.
“We’re a long way from where I would like to be,” he said. “I would have hoped that we would have reached agreement on many, many more issues than we have, but we are still working.”
According to Stoto the issues are many and complicated, and the changes in the economic situation present many challenges to the negotiations.
“While I share Dr. Halpern’s wish that the process was further along than it is, I also know that we should not miss this important opportunity to take stock of those articles of the labor agreement that directly impact the university’s ability to meet its mission,” he said.
Most of the issues that have been discussed between both parties have been technical, according to Halpern. Issues like union rights, who the union represents, how academic decisions are made and the role of faculty in those decisions have been discussed, but not settled. The most contentious issue, Halpern said. has yet to be discussed: compensation.
“[Compensation is] salary, but it’s also medical benefits, it’s retirement benefits, it’s tuition subsidy the faculty get,” Halpern said. “It’s all of those things. We’re going to take a position that Rider has been able to attract some of the very best faculty in the country by being competitive, and that we need to continue to be competitive.”
When the current contract was negotiated in 2007, union members made anywhere from $54,435 to $92,455. While that may seem like a solid starting salary, Halpern said it is important to consider the fact that most union members spent many years in school earning their doctorate instead of making money.
Halpern believes that the most difficult issue in terms of compensation to settle will be medical benefits.
“The big issue here, we think, will be the university has proposed a medical insurance plan which would, if you think of our unit as a single sort of body, cost our unit another half a million dollars for their medical insurance,” he said.
Stoto stated that the economic downturn has affected many families and college-bound students. In response, Rider has put more money into financial aid and scholarships for those students.
“Continuing investments in our faculty and staff as well as in scholarships and facilities remains an important priority,” he said. “Universities throughout the country have been forced to deal with finding the right balance of such investments, and Rider University is no different. For these reasons, finding common ground on the economic issues that directly impact our ability to meet these compelling needs will be a significant challenge but it is one where I believe the parties have a shared interest.”
Rider’s AAUP website provides additional information on this issue.
“We… gathered information on how much the University spends per bargaining unit member on health insurance and retirement,” the site explains. “The University spends on average $10,282 per eligible bargaining unit member for medical insurance. We compared this to nine comparable private not-for-profit Universities in the region and discovered that the weighted mean was $11,770; there were only three institutions that spent less than Rider per eligible member.”
Halpern stated that union members do not want to pay more for their health insurance.
So, will the parties extend the union contract a second time?
“At this stage it is not likely that the parties will reach final agreement by the end of this month, and theUniversity remains committed to continuing the dialogue as long as the discussions remain productive,” Stoto said, adding that it is often difficult to predict how negotiations will pan out.
Halpern, though unsure, had a more direct answer.
“Whether we’ll extend or not, I don’t know,” he said. “Will we continue to extend indefinitely? That, I’m sure, the answer is no.”
According to Halpern, protecting the rights of union members and what they have gained, not a strike, is the goal.
“A strike is not a goal and it’s not an end, it’s a means,” Halpern said. “It is the last means. It’s the last resort, and we won’t go there unless we think we have no other choice. But if we think we have no other choice, we will go there.”
If the AAUP does decide to strike, it will very much affect the student body.
“Your faculty will not be in class. Your librarians will not be available to help, coaches will not be available and so on. That is obviously not something we want to see happen.”