By Thomas Regan
Talks between the administration and Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to find cuts that would help combat the university’s $7.6 million deficit have stalled, after the union’s proposal was declined by the administration.
The administration’s request for a wage freeze and pension cuts was met with a counter offer that would have seen the faculty members give back their raises for the 2015-2016 year starting with the October paycheck.
However, in return, the AAUP requested that the current contract be extended for two years and that the faculty receive a minimum increase of 2 percent in the last two years of the contract. In addition, the union wanted another 1 percent in the event that the enrollment should exceed that of this academic year by 100 students.
Jeffery Halpern, the Rider AAUP chapter’s chief grievance officer, expressed the union’s hesitancy to accept another wage freeze without a return of some sort because it would mean two years straight without a wage increase for faculty.
“The university approached us and we said, ‘We have a contract in place,’” said Halpern. “We negotiated it a year ago and it’s a legally binding document. We took no raise last year, even though costs were going up, average salaries across the country were going up, we took a zero.
“We were to have a 2 percent increase this year. The university approached us and asked us for concessions, to alter the agreement so as to reduce our benefits, our costs.”
Yet Halpern’s concern for the changes within the economy is the reason the administration cannot comply with the two-year extension, according to President Gregory Dell’Omo. Agreeing to such a proposal and issuing guarantees would be unrealistic with the unpredictable state of the economy, he said.
“We don’t want a contract extension because we don’t know what awaits us in terms of the economy and in terms of the market, in terms of the competition,” Dell’Omo said and implored the union to stick with the length of the current contract and “accept the concessions to help us offset the deficit because we have a real problem.”
Though the university is more than 100 students short of its enrollment goal, Halpern asserts that the shortfall is not the faculty’s fault, and they should not be held accountable for the shortcomings.
“Top administrators are going to have to be committed to spending a lot of time in a contract negotiation when we think they should be out there strengthening the institution,” he said. “If we don’t have the right people to do that, then we should get the right people. That’s pretty blunt, but as I said before, it’s not the faculty that failed to bring in the right-sized incoming classes.”
Halpern also believes the university is not yet in a financial emergency, while acknowledging that if enrollment worsens, there could be a serious issue.
“We don’t think it’s reached the point of a fiscal crisis,” he said. “Obviously, if you continue that line downward, any line that continues downward from that point is going to be a crisis. We’re certainly not happy with it, and I think everybody from top to bottom has to be focused not on cutting, but on building.”
While Dell’Omo agrees with the concept of working toward a greater Rider future, he explained that it starts with saving as much money as possible now. But he did acknowledge that saving money with a faculty-wide wage freeze isn’t a complete solution.
“It doesn’t solve the problem tomorrow because the salary raise for this year generates about $850,000,” he said. “It doesn’t erase the $7.6 million in deficit. You have to invest in the university to make money, but you also can’t do it when you’re draining your coffers.”
Dell’Omo cited the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ (AFSCME) recent contract negotiations with the university as the hope the administration had for talks with the AAUP.
“They [AFSCME] understood the severity and the sense of urgency attached to the institutions’ situation and they agreed to a very tough contract with salary decreases, taking reductions in their retirement benefits as well, so they really stepped up to the plate,” said Dell’Omo. “They understood that the short-term problem is to stabilize the university, stabilize the finances, so we can begin to reinvest back into the growth of the university. We all benefit when the pie expands.”
However, the AAUP hoped the university would be able to give them something in return for two consecutive years without a raise.
“We’re disappointed,” Halpern said. “We thought we were making a reasonable offer; we certainly did not expect to be told simply, ‘We’ll take the candy, but not give you anything in return.’ We expected this to be where there would be a win-win.”
Dell’Omo made it clear that, while he’s willing to hear other solutions, there will be no compromises.
“I’m open to them coming back if they want to make another offer,” said Dell’Omo. “But there can’t be these conditions to extend contracts and have other built-in guarantees. We can’t do that because we don’t know what the world will be; we need concessions now.
“It’s not negotiations. It’s not a pleasant thing for anyone to give anything back, and I understand that. However, I think in a collegial environment like this, in a setting like this, it’s time for everybody to step up to the plate and make the sacrifice.”
Additional reporting by Brandon Scalea