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Line in the Sand

July 25, 2005

Professors at Kent State University aren't thrilled about the offers the institution has put on the table with regard to salary increases over the next few years -- increases that wouldn't top 3 percent in any year.

But the issue that has faculty members angry -- perhaps angry enough to go on strike -- isn't salaries, but health insurance. The faculty union, an affiliate of the American Association of University Professors, is currently conducting a mail ballot of its members to seek the authority to strike, possibly as 36,000 students arrive next month for the fall semester.

Michael Lee, a professor of physics and chair of the union's committee in charge of planning a possible strike, said the health insurance issue is what could prompt a strike. He said that the administration's proposals -- which follow many months of negotiations -- include "one feature that is undesirable and one feature that is unacceptable."

The undesirable feature is that premiums paid by professors would increase and fewer options would be available. But the unacceptable feature, he said, is one that would require faculty members to share half of the costs of any increases in health care costs the university faces, in excess of 10 percent. That proposal, he said, has the potential to be expensive and also to make it impossible for them to count on economic security under a contract.

Ohio labor regulations bar unions from negotiating in the press, so Lee stressed that he was summarizing past, public statements by professors, and said he couldn't comment on any new ideas the union has put forward.

"What this really comes down to is the vulnerability we feel with the health care plan," he said. Professors should be able to have a contract on which they know what their health contributions will be, he added. Kent State's union agreed to put the proposal before its members last month, and they overwhelmingly rejected it.

Lee said that he expected any change in professors' benefits to soon spread to other employees.

Scott Rainone, a spokesman for Kent State, said that the university faces "staggering costs" in health insurance, just as other employers do, with spending up 45 percent since 2001. He said that he hoped the union would discuss the university's ideas or other concepts for dealing with those increases. But he said that tight state budgets made it impossible for the university not to consider changes in health benefits.

The university has "every intention" of starting classes for the fall semester, he said, adding that with students and families making final decisions on where to enroll in the fall, "this is a really bad time" for the professors to be threatening to strike.

 

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