Staff push for benefits

The issue of tuition reduction is expected to be a key focus in union-Regent negotiations.

by Karlee Weinmann

It’s nearly contract negotiation time and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union members are continuing a push for what they call adequate benefits and compensation.

In this contract negotiation process, unionized University staff members, from librarians to technical workers, want tuition cost reduction for family members in exchange for their commitment to the University.

The proposed discount, dubbed “Tuition Remission,” would apply to the immediate family members of AFSCME personnel.

Each year the plan has been presented, AFSCME representatives said, the University’s negotiators have said tuition discounts fall out of their jurisdiction and must be approved by the Board of Regents.

So last May, Candace Lund, a former library assistant and AFSCME member at the University, brought the measure before the Board of Regents in a public forum style setting.

She encouraged University administration to pursue this added benefit for staff members, who themselves can take advantage of a University Regent Scholarship Program.

The current benefit allows civil service and union-represented employees to take University courses at a reduced cost, contingent upon certain requirements such as the amount of time they have spent working for the school.

The same type of qualifications would apply to the suggested policy in which the children of University staff would receive tuition breaks according to the length of parents’ terms at the University.

With most Big Ten schools and at least half of the top 20 research institutions in the nation offering similar tuition benefits to spouses and dependents of staff, Lund said the proposal “is not unusual nationwide.”

Patti Dion, director of employee relations, said since negotiations haven’t started, she could not offer specific comments.

“We need to look at what are the costs associated, how would this help in recruiting and retaining employees,” Dion said. “And there are lots of differences of opinion on this issue.”

Lund said to prevent a potential problem of parents starting work at the University solely to take advantage of the program, breaks would be granted to children of employees who have put in at least five years of service.

For those with a five-year term, 50 percent of their children’s tuition would be cut. An additional 10 percent would be reduced for each year beyond five, with a free set of credits for students with parents logging 10 years or more at the University.

Since her presentation, Lund said she has not heard anything from the University concerning the program.

Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, said the University continually staved off Tuition Remission-type measures in the past.

“It’s ironic that at an institution dedicated to higher education, there are haves and have-nots,” she said. “And yet, that’s what they support all day long at work, is higher education.”

Lund said the issue is far from dead.

“AFSCME unions will continue to bring forward this proposal,” Lund said. “So far, they’ve been hitting a brick wall, but they’re going to continue to bring it forward each time.”

A similar measure passed in the faculty senate and is awaiting approval and possible presentation by University President Bob Bruininks before the Board of Regents.

Bruininks met with the Faculty Senate Committee on Faculty Affairs in February to discuss a proposal that would allow for reduced tuition rates to be delegated among family members of faculty making its way through the Faculty Senate.

Morris Kleiner, Humphrey Institute professor and chairman of the Faculty Senate Committee on Faculty Affairs, said when the pitch was passed, the proposal has key payback for the University.

“It’s a benefit that would likely end up paying for itself in terms of reduced turnover,” Kleiner said. “Certainly if I had children who were considering college, this would be an important benefit that would keep me at the University if I were already here.”

University spokesman Dan Wolter said Bruininks is currently reviewing the faculty-proposed measure, though there are lingering concerns.

“Faculty and staff without children or family really don’t see this as a benefit as they aren’t getting anything from it,” he said in an e-mail. “Obviously, fairness and equity need to be kept in mind for any new benefit.”

Bruininks said his decision could be expected in early fall.

While a definitive date has not been set for negotiations, both parties plan to begin them around the middle of this month.