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A Tradeoff Worth Making

June 2, 2009

Local 212 of the American Federation of Teachers is no pushover. The hard-nosed negotiating by the union for faculty members at Milwaukee Area Technical College has made the salaries of its members the envy of instructors at many two-year colleges (and more than a few four-year ones). And its leaders regularly butted heads with the college's last two administrations -- including rebuffing requests earlier this decade to forgo scheduled pay increases for its members because of the college's financial woes.

So it may have surprised many people familiar with MATC's recent history when the technical college announced last week that leaders of MATC's three unions, including Local 212, had agreed to give up a 3.25 percent raise (3.5 percent in the case of support staff) planned for their members in 2009-10 in order to help the college close a $19 million budget deficit. Relinquishing the pay raise ensured that the college would not have to furlough or lay off any workers this year, and campus leaders agreed, in exchange for the unions' concession, to promise no layoffs through the 2010-11 academic year, as well.

The unusual (and, in MATC's recent history, uncommon) cooperation between administrators and union leaders was necessitated, they say, by the extraordinary financial situation that MATC and many other institutions find themselves in today. But it was also made possible, both sides say in extending praise to the other, by a newfound spirit of forthrightness and trust after years in which conflict was as frequent as collaboration.

The institution's last president, Darnell Cole, was dismissed in February after his arrest on charges of drunk driving. But even before that, he and the union were frequently at odds, often with a venomous undercurrent. During the last round of contract negotiations, the faculty union worked for more than a year without a contract; the union's snarky lobbying message was "Got Contract? Dr. Cole Does" -- its president, Michael Rosen, says with pride.

Given that climate, the union took a jaundiced view of past requests for salary concessions, even as the college was experiencing a steady decrease in state budget support. "Previous administrations have come to us and said they have deficits, but we've always looked through the budgets and felt like, because of a combination of reserves and other initiatives, they didn't need the kind of cuts they were asking for," says Rosen, a professor of economics."They were essentially crying wolf, and we called their bluff on it."

This time was different, though. Milwaukee Area Technical College has absorbed previous state cuts largely because property values -- and in turn, the property taxes that flow to the college -- had continued to be strong. But "this year we just got hit like a ton of bricks," says Lauren Baker, chair of MATC's Board of Directors, because the continuing decline in state support was accompanied by a sharp drop in property values and, with the tumbling economy, a dramatic increase in student demand. "The property taxes just weren't there this time," Rosen adds.

Before going to the employee unions, campus administrators "went into every corner of the institution" looking for budget cuts, especially those that would not damage the college's ability to serve a swelling student body. No amount was too small, Baker says. When Interim President Vicki J. Martin suggested a cut of $30,000 during a meeting, Baker recalls, "I said, 'But that's such a small cut.' The president said, 'That's half a position.' That's the way she was thinking."

Despite the increased level of trust between the unions and the administration, faculty leaders were still skeptical when MATC's leaders first raised the prospect of forfeiting planned raises. "You don't form a union to give away salary increases," Rosen says. Union leaders asked "lots of hard questions" about other steps the technical college was taking to cut its costs. The answers -- cutting administrative positions, freezing executive salaries and slicing the advertising budget for recruiting students, among other things -- were pretty good ones, Rosen says.

Adds Baker, program coordinator for career and technical education at the Milwaukee Public Schools: "We took the hits first. We said, 'This is what we're doing; now we need you to come to the table.' "

Even so, giving up a committed raise was a hard sell within the unions, and "you don't give up something for nothing," says Rosen. Union leaders saw forgoing the 2009-10 raise as making a "$5 million investment" (the value of the forfeited pay increase) in MATC, he says, and they wanted to make sure that the campus's administrators were "going to use that investment to provide education to dislocated workers and others in our community."

So to ensure that the unions wouldn't give up the pay increase only to see MATC use the money for other purposes and lay employees off, the unions pushed for a clause in the new agreement that would preclude any layoffs of full-time employees not only in 2009-10 but 2010-11 as well. "We put a lot of skin in the game, and we got a contractual assurance back that they'd use our investment wisely." (While part-time faculty and staff did not get job guarantees, campus leaders did agree to increase the college's contribution to their health insurance coverage and to give them the same break on campus parking that full-time employees enjoy.)

Baker says the Milwaukee technical college was comfortable extending the "no layoff" commitment into 2010-11 because its reserves are sufficient -- assuming the economy does not fall further through the floor -- to shield it from having to make layoffs. While the union has in the past cited the hefty reserves as a reason not to forgo their pay, it took a different stance this year, Rosen says, "precisely because we don't know where the bottom is." If things get significantly worse, he and Baker both acknowledge, MATC might have to go back to the unions about their 2010-11 raises.

But for now, though, administrators and union leaders alike are enjoying their newfound peace and cooperation, with kind words for each other. "It was a tough discussion, and I can't say we were all singing kumbaya all the time," says Baker. "But I've got to commend our teachers and staff. It's not easy to give up a raise that you've been promised."

 

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