The University is caught in the middle

The present American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and teamsters contract battle and possible labor strike is not a struggle exclusively between the University and its employees. The main point of contention is primarily out of the University’s hands.

The benefits package offered to the University’s unionized employees reflects new charges set by health-care firms. Currently, the U Plan offers four benefits packages. Increasing health-care costs forced the increasingly underfunded University to find other means for maintaining employee health-care benefits. The proposed increase of employee contribution to their health-care plans burdens unionized employees at the bottom end of the economic spectrum with paying for increased costs.

The costs originate not in University policy but in the policies of external firms. Yet the University attempted to soften the blow to its employees by picking up approximately $14.3 million of the projected $30-plus-million health-care rate increase over the next two years.

Facing state cuts in funding, increased charges in health care for employees and threats of strikes, the University has effectively become a battleground for competing interests not beholden to the University’s mission statement.

The governor does not want to raise taxes. Health-care firms want to increase their rates. Union members want to avoid a decrease in their net pay, including salary and benefits. The University is in the middle, balancing everyone’s interests, as well as fulfilling their first priorities: education and research.

The unions make many valid points about the lack of “sharing the pain” among excessively compensated University management. But the exceedingly pertinent issue is that private health-care providers pass along their increased rates to the University without having to directly deal with their customers – University employees. The result – union strikes – are left to the University to deal with. And the cause, increased health-care rates, remains undebated.