Facilities members authorize strike and reject contract offer

By Nathan Ress

Managing Editor

The unionized facilities workers at Canisius College came one step closer to a possible labor strike. The workers voted Monday to give authority to their bargaining committee to call for a walkout, if talks with the college break down.

No strike is imminent, but the fact that the union’s bargaining committee now has the authority from its members to call one is evidence of how badly the two sides are stuck on coming to an agreement.

The approximately 60 union members and the college are stalled on the issue of reduced retirement benefits, after their last labor contract expired in May. Canisius President John Hurley said he’s sympathetic to the union’s concerns, but lower enrollment means that resources, including benefits, need to be cut. The president said the proposed cuts would be temporary. IMG_40831.jpg

The employees in the bargaining unit are members of the Local 200 United of the Service Employees International Union. SEIU represents workers at hospitals, in municipal government, and at two dozen colleges and universities in Upstate New York.

Monday’s vote took place in the Canisius call center tucked away in the basement of Lyons Hall, with facilities employees trickling into the room to cast their vote – paper ballots labelled with an option for either yes or no. Each member acknowledged to union leaders that they understood the vote, and placed a slip in each ballot box. One box read, “Vote to accept most recent contract.” The other, “Vote to authorize strike.”

The work SEIU employees perform at Canisius includes janitorial, electrical, and general maintenance. Broadly, these are the employees who keep the college clean and operational at the mechanical level.

The critical issue in their labor negotiations is about retirement benefits. Canisius wants to cut half the amount it currently contributes to employee retirement savings. Under the contract that expired in May, employees who set aside 2 percent or more of their annual pay would get a match from the college equal to 8 percent of their total pay. The latest offer from Canisius is a 4 percent match, for employees who deposit at least 1 percent in their retirement accounts.

This retirement benefit is something that Canisius’ facilities employees are very protective of, and many consider it the largest financial incentive offered by the school. It was a benefit that was negotiated up  from a 2 percent / 3 percent match over a period of 14 years, from 1988 – 2002, with employees holding the benefit since 2002.

Union members say they won the 8 percent match over years of negotiation, and don’t want to give it up. They told The Griffin that, over the years, they have passed on pay increases and other offers, in order to protect the 8 percent match.

One SEIU employee said they have been accepting “relatively stagnant contracts for years” in order to maintain this benefit into the present. Since receiving the benefit, SEIU employees have received a total of only 4 percent in wage increases.

SEIU representatives, as well as college employees represented by the union, have asked to speak on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from the college for speaking out publically.

The Canisius Faculty Association, Canisius Adjunct Movement, and the Local 200 members issued a joint ‘statement of concern’ this fall.

Faculty members have also been the target of recent cutbacks.  On June 1, all non-union faculty members lost their own 2 percent / 8 percent retirement match benefit. It was replaced by the same 1 percent / 4 percent match the college now wants the union to accept.  

President Hurley acknowledged the union’s grievance. “No one likes givebacks,” he said, but,  “I can’t give them what I don’t have.”

Hurley said lower enrollment means the college has less money coming in, and therefore must cut benefits and other costs to makes ends meet.

He estimated the lower retirement match for the 60 SEIU employees would save Canisius approximately $88,000 a year.

Hurley compared this to the College’s recent retirement incentives given to professors. Thirty-four faculty members took the buyout, for which the college spent  $5 million. Hurley said this cost was a one-time expense, versus the annual expense of the retirement match. The funds for the professors’ retirement came from a “Cash Reserve Fund” holding $10 million.

Both of these acts by the administration – the incentivized retirement of professors, as well as the lowering of the retirement match – are meant to cut costs, something which will directly affect students, Hurley said. He said that 92 cents of every dollar spent by the College comes directly from students’ tuition and fees, and argued that by saving the College money, he was saving the students money.

Despite this, Hurley did recognize the financial strain the benefit cut puts upon Canisius employees, and pledged to return to the 2 percent / 8 percent match as soon as possible, calling it a temporary suspension in an 8 June 2017 letter. He went on to say, “the senior leadership of the College is directed to take all steps possible to identify resources to restore the [retirement match] contribution at the earliest possible time.”

He restated this in a Wednesday interview calling the return of this benefit a “top priority.”

Despite this, a Statement of Concern dated Fall 2017, and signed by the coalition of the Canisius College Local 200United SEIU chapter, the Canisius Faculty Association, and the Canisius Adjunct Movement read:

“Data from the Faculty Satisfaction & Morale Survey of Spring 2017 demonstrate that no more than one out of four faculty members agree that senior leadership has inspired confidence, trust, or leadership. When asked about their ‘current level of trust in the judgment of the administration,’ 80% of the faculty responded with ‘very low’ or ‘low.’ The 2016-2017 Faculty Senate unanimously passed a ‘vote of no confidence in the budget’ of the College. And the 2017-2018 Faculty Senate passed, unopposed, a resolution expressing ‘an increasing lack of confidence’ in the senior leadership team’s ability to ‘provide a clear academic vision’ and to ‘produce a sustainable, achievable plan to stabilize the institution.’”

As one faculty senator put it, “It doesn’t feel like we’re on the same team anymore.”

“They take and they take, and they don’t give us anything,” one frustrated union member said.

After the votes were counted on Monday, the result was clear. The SEIU employees had voted not to accept the “best and final” contract offer by the College.

The SEIU also voted to permit its bargaining committee to authorize a strike. This does not mean that a strike is imminent or has already been implemented, but it does mean that the general body has granted the bargaining committee permission to call one if they see fit. “We don’t want to strike, but management is leaving us with few other options,” said one SEIU member.

President Hurley said he also hoped to avoid a strike, saying it would not be beneficial to anyone. He said he is committed to the two sides’ continuing with talks. “We never want to close off discussion,” he said.

It’s not known what the next step will be.

 

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