U workers begin voting on contract

Jessica Thompson

University technical and clerical workers started voting Monday to either support or reject their tentative 2001-03 contract agreements with the University’s administration.

If union workers reject the proposed contract and strike, one-third of the University’s 14,330 employees could walk the picket lines.

Jane Vega, a member of the clerical workers’ negotiating team, said the vote so far is “incredibly close.”

But despite some reports of a divided workforce, workers at the polls were mostly critical, calling the University’s health care and wage offers unlivable.

“There are a very high number of people here with two jobs, which proves that you can’t live just on the University’s wages,” said Brad Sigal, a senior office specialist and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But University administrators said increased wages and an improved health care plan reflect the institution’s commitment to its AFSCME workers.

“There’s a gigantic list of changes in the new contract,” said Carol Carrier, vice president for human resources. “One of our big issues has been supporting our lowest-income workers.”

The tentative settlement reached Sept. 27 includes a 3 percent wage increase for each year.

The contract also expands health care benefits for same-sex domestic partners to include health, dental and life insurance.

“The University was very, very intent on making sure we had the same level of coverage for same-sex domestic partners as we do for married spouses, and that hasn’t been the case in the past,” Carrier said.

Under the agreement, minimum wage will rise to $12 per hour for employees who work at least 20 hours each week. While some employees call the adjustment a victory, others say it is unfair to long-term employees who might make the same as new workers.

Workers also critiqued rising co-pays for health insurance under the University’s newly instated plan.

“In the past, the University was a good place to work because of the benefits. But now, because one person in my family is sick, we’re going to end up losing money,” said Stefanie Yorek, a Medical School employee.

Voters said the University ignored workers’ demands for hiring priority requirements, where current employees would be considered before outside applicants.

At the polls, workers were asked to sign a letter to the Board of Regents calling on them to protect and increase salaries for long-term employees.

Some workers cited the recent two-week-long state strike of more than 23,000 employees – who prepared for the strike for two years – as an example of worker unity. But Vega said she is concerned University workers might not have enough training to successfully strike.

“I worry people would not be able to stick to it and would cross the picket lines, which would be more damaging than voting ‘yes,'” Vega said. “People really need to vote with their consciences.”

Vega said only 57 percent of eligible University employees are full-share AFSCME members, whereas 80 percent of state workers are unionized. But, she said, several workers have joined AFSCME in the past week so they are eligible to vote on the contract.

Union members will continue voting throughout the week. Results will be announced Thursday or Friday. If union workers vote to reject the contract, a strike date will be determined after a 10-day “cooling off” period.

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]