Staff union rallies for support at State House


Lindsay Brown

Vermont State Employee Association union members gather at the State House

The Vermont State Employee Association (VSEA) union members, in cooperation with other union members, Vermont State College (VSC) students, faculty, and legislators pulled together in a sea of green t-shirts at the “Rally for a Fair Contract” on the steps of the State House Monday, Sept. 16.

At the rally, Orange County Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, who is a VSEA retiree and Co-Chair of the Working Vermont Legislative Caucus announced plans to introduce the “Fair Compensation in Higher Education Act,” in January which, according to the VSEA, would establish a livable wage of at least $12.50 per hour, a closing of the wage gap between the VSC’s and the University of Vermont (UVM), make VSC’s pay consistent with the rest of state government, and end “Golden Parachute” retirement packages.

Administrators and staff members at the Vermont State Colleges have been concerned about their contracts since June when their previous contract ended. The VSEA Bargaining Unit says the chancellor has proposed a 25 percent cut to retirement benefits and refuses to pay employees a livable wage, established by the Joint Fiscal Office as $15.23 for a single person.

The VSEA also says that 60 percent of the VSC staff federation members earn less than the livable wage for a single person and 24 percent of those members earn less than $12.50 per hour, making most of the federation members eligible for low-income public assistance programs.

The Joint Fiscal Office figures, however, do not take into consideration the aggregate value of benefits such as retirement contributions and subsidized health insurance.

For VSEA employees, according to the chancellor’s office, that value is approximately $18,584 for those receiving the median salary of $30,700, not counting tuition waivers.

“We aren’t asking for a lot, we just don’t want them to take any more away from us,” said Staff Assistant to the Faculty at Castleton State College, Mary Woods. “That is why we have been there for so long, thinking that when we retire we will have our health benefits paid for and now they want to take away from that…Each contract they chip a little bit more away and it makes people like me, that have been there so long, work a couple more years before we retire.”

The chancellor’s office says that on average, they have provided a 5.5 annual salary increase as well as excellent health insurance benefits, which on average employees paid less than 7 percent of the premium, and a retirement contribution of 12 percent with no requirement of the employee to match. The chancellor’s proposed plan would cut this retirement contribution to 9 percent.

According to Director of Community Relations and Public Policy at the Vermont State Colleges, Dan Smith, that 3 percent difference would be reallocated to a trust fund that would help preserve the post-retirement health insurance benefit, allowing employees to continue to rely on health insurance through their retirement years.

“In effect, the measure moves money from one retirement benefit to another and helps preserve what is a currently unsustainable obligation,” Smith said.

“I think if we got money from the Legislature that would be a huge help,” said Woods. “We are like, number 48 of all the states and get the lowest amount of money from the legislators. They seem to find money for beautiful new buildings, and lots of new administrators, and directors, and assistant directors, and there is money there, but there is never enough money for the people who are in the trenches every day that do all of the really hard work.”

According to a statement released by the chancellor’s office, the bargaining team sought salary increases that were triple anything aligned with the Vermont State Colleges revenue projections. Nonetheless the chancellor’s office has vowed to “continue to come to the table in good faith to pursue an agreement that is financially responsible for the colleges and fair for our 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.

“The turnout exceeded expectations and there was a lot of solidarity from participants,” said Tim Boyle, a union organizer. “It really kind of kicks off some important legislative issues and shows that there is a lot of support for these issues, not only for fair wages, but also for more transparency and accountability.” in higher education.”