Staff union, VSC negotiations stalled

Vermont State Colleges (VSC) and the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA), representing about 250 administrative and service employees at four Vermont State Colleges, have reached impasse over negotiations for a new contract.

According to VSEA organizer Tim Boyle, “The reason the impasse is being reached is because the chancellor wants to have a 25 percent cut on retirement benefits and does not want to agree to a livable wage increase for staff, many of whom are making under $10 an hour… And the justification he is giving being that because they get good benefits, they don’t need a wage increase, which is something that both the negotiators with the union and the low-wage workers themselves believe is not a legitimate argument.”

According to Adam Norton, an analyst for the VSEA, employees of the state college system start at $9.65 per hour. The Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, which provides non-partisan fiscal analyses to Vermont House and Senate committees, has determined that a livable wage in Vermont for a single person with no dependents is $15.74 per hour. For a single mother with one child it is $24 per hour.

Benefits for VSEA employees include most of the Cigna health insurance premiums, supplemental dental insurance, retirement contributions and tuition waivers for employees, spouses and immediate family members.

“The current average salary for full time employees in the VSEA Staff Federation is $30,700 per year,” said Dan Smith, director of community relations and public policy for the Vermont State Colleges, in a Basement Medicine interview. “The 12 percent annual retirement contribution for someone making the average salary is $3,684…In this union, on average, the college pays 93 percent of the health insurance premium (around $14,900) and the employee pays 7 percent (around $1100)…So, for a person making the average wage in the VSEA Staff Federation, receiving health insurance as a couple with their spouse, the value of retirement contribution and health insurance is roughly $18,584. That amounts to 60 percent of salary.”

Sandy Noyes, the staff assistant for the Humanities and Writing and Literature departments and JSC campus chair for the union, feels the proposed cut to her retirement fund would be detrimental, but she is also worried about her peers. “What I would like to see is the lower-paid people brought up to have a livable wage,” said Noyes. “I don’t think that anyone in our union should be able to get food stamps and fuel assistance. We should make enough to make a living. And, I don’t mean hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars a year but I think we should be able to make a living and not work two or three part time jobs to do it.”

In the statement issued this week by the chancellor’s office, the VSC argues that “In our negotiations, the union sought salary increases that were almost triple anything aligned with the VSC’s revenue projections and [the union] urged the VSC to ignore the realities of its post-retirement health insurance obligation to its employees.”

The next step in this process will be mediation, which is reportedly set to begin in October. An outside source will be brought in to facilitate conversation between the two parties, and if that doesn’t work, another outside source will do fact-finding on both sides of the argument and present a proposal. If the proposal is rejected, the issue will be referred to the Labor Relations Board, which will make and implement its decision on the contract.

“Generally it’s in everyone’s interest if there is some sort of agreement that is made before the fact-finder starts acting as a third party,” said Boyle. “With a fact-finder, they are a completely neutral third party…and it is essentially taking power away from the elected bargaining members of the union who obviously have a vested interest in making sure the negotiations go well, so it’s really adding another level of complication to the process.”

According to a statement released by the chancellor’s office, the VSC does not intend to negotiate through the media, while the union members are looking to elicit support from community members, students and legislators.

To accomplish this they will be holding a “Vermont State College Workers’ Rally for a Fair Contract” at the Vermont State House on Sept. 16, at 3 p.m. “There is likely going to be legislation proposed at this rally,” said Boyle.

Students are encouraged by the VSEA to attend the 3 p.m. rally at the State House as well as the VSEA Open House afterwards at 5 p.m. The VSEA will provide transportation.