Unions file labor suit against U

Matt Graham

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 is suing the University for unfair labor practices during its latest round of contract negotiations, officials announced Tuesday.

Members of AFSCME Locals 3800, 3937 and 3260, representing 3,500 clerical, technical and health-care employees at the University, said they filed the suit because the institution is denying union leave to members of its bargaining committee.

The suit is the first public disagreement between the two sides since contract talks resumed in June. Union workers and the University have historically faced off before, most recently in a two-week work stoppage in fall 2003.

Union leaders said the University’s decision stems from its desire to control who sits on the union’s negotiating committee.

But University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg, who said the lawsuit is “without merit,” emphasized that the University is not preventing people from attending negotiations.

“We are not trying in any way to limit or select the union’s bargaining representatives,” he said.

The parties have been negotiating since June 22, but they were late in starting because of disagreements between the two sides about how the negotiations should proceed.

AFSCME union leaders said they wanted health-care workers and clerical workers to bargain at the same table, but Jennifer Lovaasen of AFSCME Council 5 said, “(The University) said point blank that that was something they found unacceptable.”

Rhonda Jennen, AFSCME Local 3260 president, said that when the University would not allow unified discussions, the unions requested that members from each union be allowed to participate in one another’s negotiations because of “overlapping issues” between the unions.

But the University said it could not grant union leave for health-care employees to attend clerical negotiations, nor could clerical workers be paid to attend health-care meetings.

Lori Vicich, communications director for the Office of Human Resources, said the various bargaining units’ desire to negotiate together differed from past negotiation practices.

“They were asking for double the amount of people to negotiate double the amount of time,” she said.

But the union said a combined negotiation team will only expedite the process, ultimately saving money.

“There is real potential that working together will speed things up,” Jennen said.

Out of protest, union negotiating team members took leave without pay to attend the negotiations the University would not reimburse them for.

Law School professor Stephen Befort, a public-sector labor-law expert, said the union is “generally right that they can control who represents them,” but that bringing together separate bargaining units, such as locals 3800 and 3260, “is only appropriate with the consent of all parties.”

Union members also said the University is unfairly punishing Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker by revoking her union leave pay after she used union leave on several occasions to protest the closing of General College.

Gladys McKenzie, chief negotiator for AFSCME Council 5, said the union took a clear position on General College and that Walker’s use of union leave to protest was appropriate union business.

McKenzie said the University is also unhappy about a political cartoon posted on the union’s Web site that University President Bob Bruininks found offensive.

However, Rotenberg said Walker’s deal, which excused her from half of her University duties to work on union business with no reduction in pay, was an “unusual, generous agreement” and that the deal expired June 30.

Rotenberg said it would not be appropriate for the University to renew the deal because “this is a public institution and we have to keep in mind our fiduciary responsibilities,” to taxpayers and students paying tuition.

The union also charged that an e-mail sent directly to union members by Human Resources Director Patti Dion, bypassing the negotiating team, was a violation of what AFSCME Council 5 President Eliot Seide termed “negotiating etiquette.”

But Rotenberg said the University has as much of a right to communicate with its own employees as the union does.

Both sides expressed regret that negotiations devolved to this point, but neither feels the suit will be an impediment to continuing negotiations.