After seven months of negotiations, The Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the College reached a deal last Sunday, Dec. 9, when the CWA members voted to ratify the latest proposal.
The most notable features of the four-year contract include a 2% increase in wages for the first three years, and a 3% increase in the fourth year. Employees would also be required to pay a 7.5% contribution for single-payer health insurance. To offset this new cost, employees will be granted a $200 signing bonus and a $1100 bonus in the fourth year.
Other items agreed upon in the negotiations include a mandatory 90-day notice for layoffs, improved severance pay for layoffs and an agreement that the College cannot contract out work that will result in layoffs.
“Management is very satisfied with the contract,” wrote Ruth Spencer, Associate Vice President of Human Resources, in an emailed statement. “We had to give on some issues, yet we were able to address other issues that were necessary for the College. There are always concessions by both sides in contract negotiations.”
“The bargaining team and the membership are pleased with this deal,” wrote Carl Bertsche, a business agent for the CWA and Science Support Technician at the College. In an article published two weeks ago in The Miscellany News (“Wages and healthcare holding up CWA deal” 11.28.12), Bertsche cited economic issues—such as wages and healthcare—as the primary factors for holding up the deal.
In recent weeks, wages have been at the center of the debate. The red posters published by the CWA claimed that full time CWA employees could earn as little as $10.58 an hour, or $20,631 per year, with an average salary of $34,469. In her all-campus email, sent Nov. 19, President Catharine Bond Hill refuted this figure, claiming that the average “annualized base pay” for CWA employees was $41,000.
But Hill drew criticism from CWA members for misrepresenting actual salaries, since “annualized base pay,” reflects the amount of money employees would if they were to work full time for 12 months a year, despite the fact that many CWA employees work part time or only during the academic year.
The 7.5% healthcare contribution is another new feature of the contract. Though employees historically have paid for coverage for dependents, contributions for single payer insurance will be an unprecedented cost for CWA workers at the College.
Though Hill’s email did not mention the subject, according to CWA members it was among the most hotly contested issues. In a Nov. 26 interview, Spencer cited healthcare contributions by all employees as a guiding principle for the College during negotiations.
Though the College’s demand was criticized by CWA employees for being regressive for members at the bottom of the pay scale, especially in relation to faculty and members of the administration, Spencer remained firm in this stance. Said Spencer in a Nov. 26 interview, a few weeks before the parties reached a deal, “We believe everyone should contribute something. Currently, faculty and administrators pay 15%. We are trying to negotiate a contribution.”
In addition to wages and healthcare, the deal includes measures that would soften the blow of a possible layoff, given a recent history of austerity measures and job cutbacks at the College.
“I am very happy that we were able to negotiate for gains in job security,” noted Bertsche, citing the College’s controversial decision to cut 13 staff positions in 2009. “The membership went through great turmoil in December 2009…CWA didn’t want to put that burden on the members again.”
The contract also works proactively to protect future employees from low wages. Said Spencer, “The longevity schedule has been modified to have future salaries more in line with regional wages; This doesn’t impact any current employees.”
This was likely in response to the criticism made on CWA posters: “The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the mean Administrative Assistant starting salary in Poughkeepsie is $32,720.00, while Vassar College Administrative Assistants start at $23,7868.00.”
The agreement headed off a potential strike, which Spencer feared would be an increasingly likely byproduct given the long duration of the negotiations. “I’m very glad we were able to avoid a strike,” Spencer said. She continued, “There are many unintended consequences when a strike happens.” Specifically, Spencer noted that a strike would have resulted in the loss of a retroactive payout, which is money owed to an employee for hours worked based on the newly negotiated hourly rate.
Bertsche also noted the unusually long length of the negotiation process. “The process was long and drawn out at the bargaining table, he said. “This was due to the fact that the College would have to take each proposal back to the powers that be, and rarely responded within four or five days.”
In addition to the bargaining process, Bertsche noted fundamental differences between the visions of each party. “The College maintained that CWA should settle for less because of the ‘bad economic times,’” he noted. “I guess the College realized that we were not going to back down and had the membership’s approval. Mobilization increased each week as our resolve strengthened.”
This resolve, Bertsche said, was strengthened by support from the community. “We had to show our strength through mobilization which included support from the students and some faculty members to gain a fair and equitable contract,” he observed.
Vassar Young Democratic Socialist (YDS) specifically advocated on behalf of the CWA on numerous occasions. YDS member Spencer Resnick ’15 wrote, “By attending pickets and rallies, students in YDS and other groups demonstrated worker and student unity. By gathering signatures we involved more of the community in CWA’s struggle. And by delivering those signatures at President Hill’s [town hall meeting] we showed the administration that students were ready to fight for a fair contract.”
Despite the concessions, both sides view the hard-won deal as a success. Bertsche and Spencer entered into the negotiation prepared to compromise on some issues to ensure a deal was eventually made.
If anything, there seems to be a consensus of relief between both parties. Hill and Bertch both cited satisfaction at the agreement given the upcoming holiday season.
Wrote Hill in an emailed statement, “We are delighted that we were able to do this before the holidays. The agreement is a good one for all parties involved, and therefore benefits everyone at the College.”
While the contract signals an improvement in Vassar’s relationship with the CWA, the groups remain divided on the larger significance of the negotiations. Spencer seemed optimistic with the closure of the negotiation process. “We had a good relationship with CWA before the negotiations and still do,” she wrote.
But Bertsche remains hesitant to completely close the book on the disagreement. “There is a great deal of work that needs to be done to repair the relationship between CWA and the College,” he noted. “But the contract is a good first step. Then it all comes back to how you treat your employees, and only time will tell.”