After more than a month of both formal and informal negotiations, United Electrical, Radio and Mechanical Workers of America (UE Local 712) has reached an agreement with the College regarding the cuts to the employees’ retirement benefits: over the next three years, the College will refund all of its employees a majority of their 2020-21 contributions.
By solidifying this deal, UE protects not only its members’ retirement contributions, but — as a result of Kenyon’s 403(b) retirement plan, which stipulates that all employees be granted the same benefits — all College employees’ contributions, as well. The July 14 agreement also extended the union’s contract for the 2020-21 academic year.
UE viewed this agreement as a massive success, and attributed this outcome to the community’s concerted efforts.
“Through different administrations and changes over the years, Local 712 has always been fortunate to have support from a broad swath of the Kenyon community including students, faculty, alumni, and staff,” UE wrote in a statement. “This fight was no different and we would like to thank our partners and supporters whose outreach and work helped make this possible.”
The deal comes after Kenyon’s administration and Board of Trustees proposed budget cuts in response to the College’s projected $19.3-56 million operating budget shortfall brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. These cuts, which were decided upon with little input from UE and the Kenyon community, included $4.9 million in contributions to retirement and retiree health plans for one year, among other expenses. Although sympathetic to the need for budget cuts as a result of the pandemic, UE members were far from pleased by this decision and entered negotiations with the College before agreeing to renew their contract for next year.
As the negotiations began, UE gained college-wide support, largely due to the efforts put forth by the Stop the Cuts Coalition: a group of students, faculty, staff and campus organizations whose goal was to protect retirement benefits for union members, and by extension, for all Kenyon employees. Most notably, Stop the Cuts launched a petition in opposition to the College’s plan, which accrued 1,279 signatures as of July 21, giving the union momentum in their discussions with the College.
UE made sure to emphasize that the agreement was also made possible through the administration’s cooperation throughout the negotiations, specifically mentioning Vice President for Facilities, Planning and Sustainability Ian Smith.
“I appreciate the compliment from UE Local 712,” Smith wrote in an email to the Collegian. He then clarified this, and added, “I was not the only hard-working person at the negotiating table. The UE negotiating team were fully present, definitely creative, and clearly devoted to their cause every day.”
President Sean Decatur was pleased that the College and UE Local 712 were able to arrive at an agreement.
“While it has always been the College’s goal to reinstate retirement benefits as financial circumstances warrant, our conversations with the UE provided an opportunity to articulate the timeline and conditions for restoration,” Decatur wrote in an email to the Collegian. “We look forward to working together to ready the campus for the academic year.”
Despite their success, UE did note that there were aspects of the negotiations for which they were unable to reach an agreement.
“We were able to reach an agreement on our shared retirement plan and make some progress in addressing employment practices, like step wages, that we consider to be unjust,” UE said. “But we were not able to reach an agreement on all issues we brought to the table.”
They do, however, stand by their decision to voice these additional concerns.
Going forward, UE is optimistic that such solidarity will be replicated in the future, and could foster long-term change at Kenyon.
“Local 712 hopes that the agreement on Kenyon’s retirement plan … demonstrates the benefit of including all Kenyon employees in decision making processes,” the union said. “[It] shows how collective action and mutual aid between members of the community can make changes that better all of our lives.”