Strike Looms at CUNY

November 23, 2009

Barring a major breakthrough with management, a union representing staff members at the City University of New York Research Foundation is likely to strike Tuesday for the first time in its more than 30-year history, negotiators say.

The foundation, a nonprofit organization that manages sponsored research at CUNY, has spent more than a year engaged in intense negotiations over salary and health care benefits with the Professional Staff Congress, a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, among other labor groups. The union’s 85 members work in the foundation’s central office, where they handle payroll and the administration of state and federal grants.

The union’s contract negotiations have come to echo the national health care debate, as employees complain that higher premiums and co-pays have taken a substantial bite out of their take-home pay. It is in that context that the union says it has reached an impasse with management, which has thus far rejected salary increase proposals the union argues are essential to offset the rising cost of health care.

“Management is not claiming that they are in any financial difficulty, and yet they are trying to force the membership to take lower increases than they have in the past many, many contracts,” said Naomi Zauderer, the bargaining team’s lead negotiator. “It’s sort of using the economy as an excuse, thinking they can trade on people’s feelings of general insecurity to take lower [pay] increases. The members know how flush the organization is because they process all the financial paperwork.”

In September, 91 percent of voting union members authorized its leadership to institute a strike. Members will meet again today, however, to have a final discussion about whether to begin withholding labor, which could trigger a strike Tuesday, Zauderer said. There is no bargaining scheduled before Tuesday, so the deal on the table is unlikely to change before a strike decision is made.

CUNY officials declined to comment on specific proposals made at the bargaining table, but struck a positive tone in a statement Friday.

“Both sides are talking, and we believe that progress is being made, and that is in everybody’s interest,” said Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor for university relations.

Over the life of the union’s last contract, staff members have seen their share of health care premiums grow from 11 percent to 17 percent in 2007, Zauderer said. This comes on top of increasing co-pays for office visits and prescriptions, as well as higher deductibles, she said. The current offer proposed by the foundation would place the employee share of premiums at 18 percent, Zauderer said.

“The bottom line is that they are paying more and more for less and less coverage,” she said.

The foundation has proposed annual salary increases of 3 percent over the life of the three-year contract, but the union is pushing for 3.75 percent in the first two years and 4 percent in the third.

The staff’s median salary is $46,000.

As the negotiations continue, employees are increasingly critical of the money the foundation has invested in its legal representation. Nixon Peabody, frequently derided by employees as a “union-busting” law firm, received about $760,000 between 2006 and 2007 from the foundation, according to the most recent available tax records. The firm’s Web site notes “Our attorneys have successfully helped employers of all sizes resist unionization efforts,” and counts “union avoidance training” among its services.

Dawn Sievers, an administrator with the foundation and a union negotiator, said she was disappointed at the approach taken by the foundation, which has been her employer for 23 years.

“It definitely feels like we’re being taken advantage of, that they’re doing this because they can,” she said.

Sievers called the strike “a scary possibility,” but added that “to let an entity as large as the research foundation just walk all over us, that’s even more scary.”

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