State and faculty union reach agreement

The Communications Workers of America (CWA), the public workers’ union that represents approximately 225 faculty and staff members at the College and more than 40,000 workers across the state, struck a deal early Monday morning with state negotiators for a new four-year contract.

As part of the agreement, CWA workers will receive a 13 percent pay raise over the next four years. This is the first time in 15 years that the CWA contract will not include a wage freeze. However, employees will also be required to pay for their health benefits for the first time in state history. The total wage increase amounts to a 12 percent compounded wage increase after these deductions.

The state’s initial offer to CWA would have resulted in a 1 percent increase in wages over the four years, with employees paying 10 percent into their health benefits.

But after 18 months of negotiations in an atmosphere of economic uncertainty as the state attempted to balance its budget, CWA was able to reach a provisional settlement Monday.

“Rather than having the Legislature unilaterally impose pension and health care givebacks on us, we have negotiated a contract that provides real economic security for our members while providing responsible leadership on the very real problems of pension and benefit costs,” Chris Shelton, CWA District One vice president, said in a message posted on the CWA Web site. District One represents New York, New Jersey, New England and eastern Canada.

Speaking on March 1 before the provisional settlement had been ratified, Susan Ciotti, the CWA branch officer for the College and professional services specialist for the honors program, expressed approval of the figures CWA had been able to reach through negotiations.

“It’s not bad, considering the state of the state,” she said, referring to the budget crisis.

While the contract does provide employees with increased wages, it may not increase their spending power. Department of Labor Consumer Price Index estimates project that the cost of living across the country is likely to increase by almost 11 percent in the next four years. In addition, the state has raised its sales tax by 1 percent since the last time CWA contracts were negotiated.

CWA is not the only union representing employees at the College with contracts expiring this year. New Jersey chapters of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are also in contract negotiations with the state this year.

“What the state offers (the CWA) usually sets the course for other negotiations,” Ciotti said.

Ralph Edelbach, president of AFT Local 2364 and associate professor of technology studies at the College, believes the needs of the faculty go beyond pay raises.

“You need to be able to attract people to the job, not only with salaries and benefits that are enticing, but with equipment and resources that will allow them to do research and make it worthwhile for them to work here,” he said.

AFT has until March 16 to present its demands to the state.

Nagesh Rao, assistant professor of English and member of AFT, is printing an unofficial newsletter to keep his fellow union members at the College up-to-date on the ongoing contract negotiations. He is hoping that AFT will be able to avoid a contract that requires employees to pay for their health benefits.

“If we accept that, it sets a precedent that the state can charge us for health benefits,” he said. “In future negotiations, it’s not going to be about whether or not they can charge us, it will be about how much.”

However, Edelbach noted that any change to the health benefits offer must be appealed to the state legislature, as state negotiators do not have the authority to amend it. Representatives from the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, which conducts negotiations on the part of the state, were not available for comment.

The state is not alone among employers across the country in looking to slash costs by having employees pay into their health plans. According to statistics from the National Coalition on Health Care, the average employee contribution to company-provided health insurance has increased more than 143 percent since 2000. In 2006 alone, health insurance premiums rose by 7.7 percent – twice the rate of inflation.

“It starts in the private sector,” Rao said. “The state sees that private companies are cutting costs by increasing the cost of health benefits, so they want to do the same.”

Both Rao and Edelbach expressed hope that students at the College will take an active role in supporting the faculty during contract negotiations.