Away From Their Desks

With classes about to start, Youngstown State has one union on strike -- and the faculty union may soon join the picket lines.
August 19, 2005

Youngstown State University officials reworded part of a proposed contract for employees Thursday in the hope of ending a strike before classes begin.

About 400 secretaries, computer programmers, graphic designers and landscapers --  members of Youngstown’s Association of Classified Employees, a local affiliate of the National Education Association -- went on strike Tuesday. The strike is the first in the union’s 20-year history. And faculty members could be on strike soon as well.

One of the main objections the employees' union had in a proposed contract was to language that allowed the university to unilaterally reclassify employees, potentially removing them from the umbrella of the union. University officials were working on ironing out that difference. “We just reworded that,” said Walt Ulbricht, a Youngstown spokesman. “Now it reads so that the union and the university would have to agree to the reclassification.” The new proposal was scheduled to be delivered to union officials late Thursday, and university officials hoped it would make a difference.

Another issues is health insurance. The union objected to the university's request that 1.5 percent of an employee’s salary go toward premiums. The union’s counter-proposal was for less than half of that. The union agreed to the university’s offer of raises of 2, 4 and 3 percent over the next three years, but requested additional signing bonuses of $500, $600, and $700, which the university said it has never felt obliged to give in the past.

With Youngstown between summer and fall classes, the strike has only been mildly disruptive. The biggest annoyance is that the Youngstown Web site and e-mail systems are down. The university shuttered the site to protect against hackers while the computer systems staff is on strike. "There are hacker sites that post a notice when they know a system is vulnerable,” Ulbricht said. “We wanted to be safe.”

In this case, safety means no Youngstown e-mail addresses are receiving outside e-mail, and students have to come to campus to register for classes instead of doing so online. Ulbricht said some university employees have said they’re relishing the break from e-mail, but Ron Cole, a university spokesman, was not one of them. “These days, you’re kind of lost without e-mail,” he said.

Students who work as office assistants were told by the university that they could excuse themselves if they felt uncomfortable crossing the picket line, but many are still coming in to work. Elsewhere, administrators have been asked to plug holes wherever possible. “Is the president out cutting the grass? No.,” Cole said. “But we’re doing our best to fill the gaps.”

Some larger leaks could spring, however, if the Youngstown chapter of the Ohio Education Association, the 380-member faculty union, which is also an affiliate of the National Education Association, does not get a new contract by Tuesday, when its members would join the picket line. The university and the faculty union agreed not to speak with reporters about their differences, but sources said that the major disagreements are over salary increases, health care premiums, and the university’s desire to restructure the current rule that allows retired faculty members to come back and teach classes at a particular salary.

Currently, no cancellations are planned. Bob McGovern, president of the student government, has been telling students they should plan on reporting to class on August 29th; the football team and the band are on campus practicing; and everything is expected to go as planned at summer commencement Saturday.

Union officials had not responded to the university’s rewording of the reclassification policy by the time their offices closed Thursday. It is still unclear if Youngstown would open its doors if faculty members also go on strike. “We’ve got a week and a half, and a federal mediator,” Cole said. “It would be nice to get this resolved.”


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