Get in Line for the Picket Line

August 24, 2005

The picket line is getting crowded around the perimeter of Youngstown State University. 

All 390 full-time faculty members went on strike Tuesday after rejecting the university’s most recent contract proposal. With classes set to begin August 29, they joined the 400 secretaries, computer programmers, landscapers and other employees who walked off the job last week. 

The major hangups in negotiations for the faculty contract are salary and health care premiums, the same issues as for the employees who struck last Tuesday. Youngstown State offered faculty members a 3 percent raise for each of the next three years, and asked faculty members to pay 1.5 percent of their salary for a family health care plan, or 0.75 percent for an individual plan. Previously, university officials said, Youngstown State was the only public university in Ohio that had not asked employees to contribute from their salaries for health insurance. 

Officials at the Ohio Education Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association that represents the professors, said the 9 percent raise over three years is not as fat as it seems. “With the 1.5 percent coming out, it’s really a 1.5 percent raise each year,” said Julia Gergits, a Youngstown State English professor and president of the Youngstown State union.

University officials said it is asking employees to pay for health care now because of the state funding squeeze. “About 10 years ago, more than half of our revenue came from the state,” said Ron Cole, a university spokesman. “In this budget, it’s down to about 30 percent.” He added that health insurance premiums have risen more than 130 percent in the last six years, bringing the annual cost to the university of a family plan to about $13,000 per employee. 

Union officials also said that talks over “extended teaching” have hit a stalemate. In the past, retired professors, once they were approved by the department, were able to teach part-time at the normal summer salary. Bob Hogue, an Ohio Education Association spokesman and Youngstown State computer science professor, said that the university has offered various changes to extended teaching that would both limit the opportunities for post-retirement teaching and reduce the salary. 

According to a statement by the university, the average faculty member’s salary is $65,900 for nine months, plus an average of an additional $7,500 for professors who teach during the summer. 

The 400 nonfaculty workers, all members of Youngstown’s Association of Classified Employees, also a local NEA affiliate, have also been asked to contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health care. ACE proposed a flat fee of $260 for a family plan. Talks on the issue stalled and broke off Tuesday, and no further discussions were scheduled as of last night. “Some of our employees make in the low [$20,000 range], so it’s a big contribution,” said Christine Domhoff, the union’s president. 

Cole said that about two-thirds of the university’s employees are on strike, but that the situation has been mitigated by the fact that Youngstown State is between summer and fall classes. That will change, however, next Monday, when classes begin. “We do still have 300 employees that are working,” Cole said. In the meantime, students can register, but they have to come to the campus to do so. 

With the computer systems staff on strike, Youngstown State has allowed minimal use of its Web site, so as to stifle hackers. The university is currently working to secure the computer systems so that online registration can proceed. 

At least the picketers have been friendly, Cole said. On Saturday, 500 students received diplomas at summer commencement. The employees put away their “strike” signs for the day and instead wielded congratulatory posters.

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