Campus unions react to Wisconsin events

"The recent passage of a bill in Wisconsin that would limit collective bargaining rights to state employee unions has campus unions questioning the affect on the rest of the country, including New York state.

"One of the more prominent unions on campus is United University Professions (U.U.P.). Like the unions in Wisconsin, they also participate in collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is the process that unions participate in with the state to negotiate wages, pensions and benefits among other points of interest in their contracts. Law requires New York state to participate in collective bargaining with unions under the Taylor Act.

"When the protests in Wisconsin were occurring, U.U.P. sent representatives to show solidarity and support. U.U.P.’s current contract with the state expires July 1, 2011, said President of the Oswego chapter of U.U.P. Steven Abraham. Prior to that date, U.U.P. will work with New York state to negotiate a new contract. U.U.P. is currently gathering input for bargaining proposals.

""There’s fear of that," Abraham said in response to what happened in Wisconsin to unions happening in New York. "I’m sure the state is going to try to weaken this contract as much as they can."

"The last time a contract was negotiated was in 2007, when the state was financially healthy and included wage increases. When the state economy began to falter, they had to pay the wage increases because it was contracted. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he wants to impose a one-year pay freeze on state salaries.

""If that were the only change in the contract, I could deal with that," Abraham said. "Obviously, if the union does not think that we can live with the negotiation [N.Y. state is] proposing, we’re going to say no to them. It’s better to have no agreement than a bad agreement."

"If an agreement is not reached and a new contract is not in place by July 1, 2011, benefits under the old contract that are not tied to an expiration date will still continue because of the Triborough Amendment, which allows proponents such as payment for medical insurance to continue.

"However, Abraham said there has been talk that Cuomo wants to do away with the amendment that could be detrimental to unions who have gone without a contract, such as SUNY University Police, who belong to Council 82. U.P. has been without a contract since 2005-06, U.P. Police Chief Cynthia Adam said. Because of the Triborough Amendment, U.P. officers still have benefits and insurance. However, they have not had a pay increase since 2003-04.

"One faculty member who has been very active in union and workers’ rights is English professor Maureen Curtin, who has helped to organize rallies in Syracuse. In March, Curtin participated in the "Solidarity Rally with Wisconsin," "Demonstration against Wisconsin Vote" and "Save Our Schools Rally NYSUT," all in Syracuse.

""The March 3 rally was intended to enable the people of Syracuse to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Wisconsin, whose right to collective bargaining has come under attack by Governor Walker," Curtin said. "We chose the recently closed Syracuse China plant as the site of our demonstration because we wanted to show what happens to communities when corporate profits are prioritized over fair labor conditions."

"Curtin became involved in local union activity during the Sunrise Nursing Home strike in Oswego. She is also a member of U.U.P. and edits their newsletter.

""In my work at U.U.P., I advocate for faculty and staff to have a larger role in decisions which directly impact working conditions," Curtin said. "When faculty and staff do not have a voice in working conditions, universities behave more and more like corporations, while classrooms become sites of compliance and assessment rather than inquiry and critique."

"Curtin finds the news out of Wisconsin troubling because of its potential impact on the rights of state workers.

""In short, [Wisconsin teachers} will have much less control over the work they do and will earn much less salary," Curtin said. "Since even with collective bargaining, public employees earn less than their comparably educated counterparts in the private sector, Wisconsin’s law is likely to drive good teachers out of the profession. This will open the door for the state to move toward increasing privatization of the public good, a strategy that is rarely good for the public."

"Federal law exempts state workers from protections afforded to their private sector counterparts under the National Labor Relations Act. Because of that long-standing exemption, public employ unions are able to have their collective bargaining rights denied, such as in Wisconsin, without legal recourse.