Faculty union chalks up victory in Vermont

October 2, 2008

BURLINGTON, Vt.--Members of United Academics-AFT/AAUP won an important victory at the University of Vermont, voting 214-to-1 in favor of a new three-year contract for full-time faculty on September 25.

The contract not only defeated administration attempts to roll back retiree benefits, reduce paid sabbatical leaves and undermine faculty governance and academic freedom but it also gained ground in crucial areas for both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.

The deal includes a 15 percent salary increase over three years, a 37-percent increase in professional development funds and new paid parental and family leave provisions that bargaining team member Beth Mintz called "the best in the country."

Members had been strongly opposed to the administration's proposals. Tony Bradley, member of the Contract Campaign Committee, said he found it "galling" that the administration wanted to double retirees' contribution to health care costs.

"This seemed like a betrayal of trust with the retiring faculty," Bradley said, "especially coming as it did in a time of looming recession, when those on a fixed income are especially at risk."

Such sentiments were confirmed by the results of several faculty surveys conducted by the union. Mintz explained, "The data that we collected were unequivocal: concern, if not outrage, at the possibilities" of administration proposals on governance and workload.

Chief negotiator Ross Thomson stressed the importance of frequent union meetings throughout the campaign, in addition to preparations for a public battle if the negotiations had reached impasse. "Because of the initial press conference--where we led with our goals, demands, and rationale--the administration could anticipate what a public campaign would have done," said Thomson.

Contract Campaign member Trina Magi agreed: "It made it clear that our union is a force to be reckoned with--that we're organized and in constant communication."

The administration had good reason to fear a public campaign, after a recent scandal over financial mismanagement culminated in the disgraced resignation of their chief finance officer in the spring.

While university President Daniel Fogel has projected his "vision" of the University of Vermont as a "premiere small research university," union research has found that total investment in instruction has declined relative to (rising) tuition revenue, while administrative costs have soared along with the proliferation of vice presidents.

United Academics has consistently fought for different priorities, as expressed in slogans such as "Put people in the vision," "Money for the classroom, not the boardroom" and "Where does the money go?"

The union's activist record is strong. "It was crucial to our success this time that we'd been quite public in the past with our criticisms of the administration--we'd held demonstrations, gone to the press, and so forth--and we made sure they were aware of what our criticisms would be if we went to impasse this time," explained Executive Council Secretary Tom Streeter.

As Bradley put it, the administration "realized that faculty were prepared to fight long and hard over these issues, and that the ensuing discussion would revolve around the millions the university has chosen to spend on matters that do not significantly affect teaching and research."

These lessons--strong rank-and-file involvement, preparation for a public battle, rejecting the logic of concessionary bargaining--will be important for the part-time faculty union as well as the staff union on campus, and for other upcoming regional labor struggles.

Colin Robinson of the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign said, "With multiple contracts coming up this year in Burlington, it is exciting that United Academics has reached a contract that sets such a great precedent in the struggle to make Vermont truly livable for workers."

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