By Casey Gale
Contract talks are headed into a three-day negotiation marathon starting Friday that could resolve the final issues and head off a threatened faculty strike.
Without an agreement by Sunday night, however, it is likely the Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) will call a strike on both campuses. The first day a strike could begin is Monday, Oct. 6.
The last points of contention are economic matters, although tentative agreements reached so far on governance, tenure and other issues remain contingent on the economic package. The compensation package includes not just faculty salaries, but also faculty members’ workload, retirement and medical benefits, and money allocated to faculty development, which allows professors to stay current in their research and teaching methods. The 651 union members include full-time and part-time professors, coaches, athletic trainers, librarians and reading clinicians.
AAUP chief negotiator Dr. Jeffrey Halpern said in an interview that the two sides have a long way to go before reaching a compromise on these issues. “At the moment, we’re very far apart,” he said.
The university negotiating team said that it is working to come to an agreement on these issues. “The administration is conducting negotiations in good faith and in a spirit of mutual respect as we work with the AAUP representatives to resolve the remaining contract articles,” the university negotiating team said in a statement.
According to Halpern, the administration wants to implement a four-year wage freeze and they also want to hire new faculty at a salary approximately 9 percent lower than stipulated for current faculty. He says all the proposed cuts taken together would make Rider comparable only to schools in states with a lower cost of living.
“We don’t think you would hire the same quality people,” Halpern said. “The administration seems to think, ‘Well, that’s OK.’ We don’t think it’s OK. We’re competing with the very best [universities] in the country, the very best in the region, and our faculty demonstrates that.”
The university negotiating team, however, said that it is trying to strike a balance between competitive economic packages while still offering a financially attainable education.
“The administration’s goal is and has always been to achieve a fair and reasonable agreement that will help keep a Rider education within students’ financial reach, while providing a high-quality experience,” the team said.
Though Halpern said there is much more discussion to be had on these subjects, he believes ample time has been provided to wrap up negotiations this weekend.
“We’ve agreed to negotiate for three days straight and have not set any time limits on how late to [negotiate] on any given day,” said Halpern. “It’s our view that that’s more than enough time to close the gap.
“There are not a whole lot of complicated issues. Some of the issues that we’ve dealt with up to now, and all of which hinge on this, were complicated and involve what I would call philosophical issues. This doesn’t. Once you’re down to this end, we either find a way to come together, or we don’t.”
The university negotiating team said that it hopes to work with the AAUP to avoid a strike. “Should it prove necessary to bargain beyond Sunday, we hope that the AAUP will join the administration in our commitment to continue the negotiations for the benefit of our students,” it said.
The possibility of a strike has left some students worried about their futures at Rider. Robert Colby-Witanek, junior piano major at Westminster Choir College (WCC), said the impending strike has been weighing on students’ minds.
“A strike would mean that students lose valuable learning time, which would amount to thousands of dollars lost in tuition for those days for our families, who are already struggling with the cost of living and a shortage of jobs in today’s economy,” he said in an inteview. “There are some students who are nervous about how a strike would affect their schedule, which shows that it is definitely in the minds of the students. The negotiations are causing a distraction.”
Bob Witanek, father of Colby-Witanek, wrote a petition on Change.org in support of the faculty and his son’s continued education.
Titled “Mordechai Rozanski: Negotiate in Fairness with Rider’s Faculty,” Witanek’s petition, dated Sept. 27 and attributed to the Rider Parents and Students Committee, had 179 supporters by the evening of Oct. 1. The petition asks Rozanski to continue offering financial packages that will retain and attract respected educators.
“We paid up front for a full semester of education, not an interrupted session, and not one taught by under-qualified temps – scabs,” said Witanek in an interview with The Rider News. “If the administration does not settle, it will demonstrate its failure to meet its obligations to students and their families that share the cost and bought the product that Rider had touted.”
Witanek, a Belle Mead, N.J., resident, said that in writing this petition, he hoped to help protect the school’s reputation.
“As is happening in universities across the country, administrations are trying to downgrade the professorial profession. By diminishing the level of educational requirement, Rider hopes to reduce the reward for the faculty — which diminishes the value of the education for the high price that the consumers of the education here pay.
“I am trying to do a service to the student body and the other families so that we do not have to write off this semester or start shopping around for another university to transfer to. This is an opportunity for the Rider faculty, students and families to come together to work to protect the integrity of the profession and the great name of Rider University,” said Witanek.
To read the entire petition, see letter to the editor, p. 9.
Visit www.theridernews.com on Sunday, Oct. 5 for the latest regarding negotiations.