On Aug. 26, UE Local 712 — a local chapter of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America representing 26 Maintenance Department workers — and Kenyon College agreed on terms of a new three-year contract, which will extend until June 30, 2024. The renewed contract added clauses for bereavement leave, short-term disability coverage for injured workers and a reduction of the step wage — a progressive wage increase from 82% to full pay — from five years to three years for new hires.
In a joint statement, both the College and the union acknowledged that this occasion marked the 10th consecutive contract since 1997. “Our new contract is symbolic of the mutual working relationship between Kenyon and UE Local 712,” wrote Vice President for Facilities, Planning and Sustainability Ian Smith in an email to the Collegian. “We value the hard work and dedication of Local 712 members. They are a vital part of our community.”
Reaching this agreement came after months of negotiations. Both parties signed multiple short-term extensions over the summer to prevent a lapse of contract. Bob Smith and Glenn Goodwin, the president and vice president of UE 712, noted that the membership voted down early versions of the contract by a two-thirds margin before approving the agreement; this followed successful negotiations regarding the College’s contributions to Medicare retirement funds through the Emeriti insurance program. “Once we had Medicare supplements, when we went back in… [the contract] passed by a strong majority,” Goodwin said.
In 2003, UE members voted against joining the Emeriti program, opting instead to join the UE Steel Workers’ policy, which was independent of the College. Due to steadily rising costs of premiums on that plan, however, recently retired UE 712 workers — five in the past three years — have found themselves unable to access the UE Steelworkers Medicare supplement. “It was just unaffordable,” Goodwin said. College contributions to that retirement plan — $125 a month — were not enough to cover monthly premiums that rose to as high as $825. After negotiating with the College to access the more affordable Emeriti plan offered to all other employees, each UE 712 member received the same one-time deposit into their retirement fund and guaranteed annual health contributions for the remainder of their employment at the College.
However, a number of UE 712 members nearing retirement age are concerned that this agreement does not fully acknowledge the predicament of long-term maintenance workers. According to Smith, who has been an employee at the College for 37 years, over half of the current UE 712 members will not accrue sufficient contributions to guarantee lifetime Medicare access post-retirement. “We would really like to have some kind of assurance that we’re [going to] have help making those premiums for the rest of our life,” Smith said. “I feel like it was the right thing to ensure that long-term employees have Medicare supplement coverage.”
More broadly, UE 712 is working towards a tangible recognition of the work they put into the College. Smith estimates that maintenance workers have saved Kenyon millions of dollars through the Middle Path Partnership: an alliance between administrators of the College, UE 712, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and a student representative that meets weekly to collaborate and address labor issues. Skilled maintenance workers trained in electrical work, for example, can save the College from outsourcing by performing the same duties as an electrician. The cost savings are born out of the collective experience of this group, although they have had difficulty getting the College to track how much money they save. They are hopeful that the commitment they were able to acquire in the contract will help achieve that goal.
“We don’t want a pat on the back or a smiley face on our timesheet for the day,” Goodwin said. “We just want to feel like the College appreciates that [their efforts], and they can express it through contract negotiations and doing right by paying for the retirees.”
The focus of both the Middle Path Partnership and UE 712 is incremental change. Goodwin and Smith both noted that they will likely not reap the full benefits of what they are striving for. In the time since Goodwin has been at the College, starting wages have improved and UE 712 has renegotiated step wages. “It’s going to be easier to recruit new workers once everybody starts retiring, because the starting wage is a whole lot more than when I started,” said Goodwin.
Goodwin insisted that the Middle Path Partnership would not be where it is today if not for the people who have stuck with it throughout the years. “There’s been a lot of people on the union side who’ve really wanted to see it succeed for the simple fact that it gives us a voice,” he said. “You walk in there and we’re all equal.”