By David Hoyt
After a summer of negotiations between the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 712 (UE Local 712) and the College, the two parties have agreed on a contract that is similar to years past in all but its duration. The contract, which applies retroactively to July 1, when the unions previous contract expired, provides for a two percent pay raise for the workers each year for two years, and also makes minor changes to the employees health plan.
Both Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman, representing the College, and Robert Smith, a carpenter and the president of UE Local 712, said these salary and benefit terms are par for the course, but the duration of the contract two years instead of three proved to be a major point of contention.
Previous contracts have been three [years long], Kohlman said. The new, shorter contract is mostly related to the ongoing discussion about the [MMAP], and seeing where that all comes out. We have to give them an opportunity to do the work they were charged with doing, and at the end of that, theyll make a recommendation and well move forward based on that.
Union members have suspected all along and kind of still suspect that the shorter term of the contract is in relation to the College wanting to outsource our jobs, even with a two-year contract, Smith said. We dont know why else they would want a shorter term.
The negotiation process was unusually tense, according to Smith, and because of the high profile and contentious nature of the negotiations, both sides brought in outside observers for the first time. UE Local 712 used Professor of Sociology George McCarthy and Professors of Anthropology Patricia Urban and Edward Schortman as their observers, and the College used Patrick Gilligan, director of counseling services.
The Union introduced observers after the first meeting without consulting with the College, Kohlman said in an email. This is very unusual. The negotiating teams of both groups are usually agreed upon upfront in the process and maintained throughout the negotiations, he said.
Though McCarthy did not have any previous experience with contract negotiations, he said he was impressed by the Union representatives dedication to Kenyon.
These workers really cared about Kenyon. I was just overwhelmed by the dedication and concern that these people had for maintaining the Kenyon community and spirit, he said. He said the main problem seemed to be one of communication.
McCarthy suggested that a joint labor-management committee be formed which would allow for more fluid communication.
The College used the raises as leverage to encourage the Union to approve the contract, Smith said. Their final offer that they gave us was punitive, he said. If it wasnt approved within three days, the wages wouldnt be retroactive, then if it wasnt approved within like a week or two after that, then the wages dropped, and if it went more than three weeks, the wage increase went away all together.
Kohlman said the offer was a regular negotiating practice and one that the College has used in past negotiations with the Union. The Colleges final offer included certain periods of time that would determine what raise, if any, would be given if the contract was ratified within certain periods of time, he said.
The contracts ratification brings a temporary solution to the conflict that emerged over the Colleges decision to initiate a partnership with Sodexo. We went in with a proposal that was based on [a statement by President S. Georgia Nugent in March] saying the College was in the best financial shape it had ever been, so we had higher expectations than what we came away with, Smith said. But after they were informed of the Sodexo partnership on June 5, the Unions priority was less about money and more about continuing to be College employees and not [be] sold down the river to the lowest bidder. the money kind of became secondary to everybody at that point, he said.
Nugent pointed out that while the College is overall on sound financial footing, the class of 2016 required approximately $750,000 more in financial aid than expected, throwing off the Colleges budgeting. If you have the responsibility for leading an institution like this, you have to look long term so if were going to be sound stewards of the College, we have to be thinking about how we can keep down our costs, she said.
Kohlman said the reasoning behind partnering with an outside company was to focus the Colleges own resources on the academic mission, rather than maintenance management. All over the country, you see places that are making changes to how they operate because they dont want to eliminate academic programs, Kohlman said. Those are the decisions that we have to make, now and in the next several years. Theyre not easy decisions, but I think theyre the right decisions, because the academics are whats the primary focus of this place.
Smith said the Union feels there are other ways to save money. For example, Smith outlined a plan for Union members to acquire cheaper health insurance from another provider, but claimed the College was not interested in pursuing it.
Though the fate of UE Local 712 has been decided for at least the next two years with the end of contract negotiations, the MMAP hopes to find a more permanent solution, according to its chairman, Larry James, a Kenyon trustee and Columbus attorney at Crabbe, Brown & James, LLP.
The number one thing we wanted to do is familiarize ourselves with the issues regarding maintenance, the history of maintenance at Kenyon College and where were headed in the future, said James, who is the only member of the Panel authorized to speak with reporters. The Panels goal is to issue a recommendation by November, and James believes the Panel has put together some part of the puzzle, but I would say were probably about halfway there [to] really understanding all of the issues.
James, who said he regularly deals with labor issues in his practice, says the Panel is aware of the Unions concerns. The Panel has already heard a presentation by representatives of Sodexo and plans to hear a presentation by Union members about alternate ways for the College to save money.
Whether or not the recommendations of the panel will be implemented, however, is currently unclear. I cant answer that question because its asking us to predict what will happen two years from now, said Nugent. What the panel recommends will be a recommendation to me, Ill discuss it with the Board [of Trustees], and well take it very seriously.
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