What is ‘Bargaining’?
December 31, 2013
By Bob Velez, VP of Membership, GA United
Welcome to 2014!
Before I get into the substantive material indicated by the title, since this is my first contribution to the GAU Advocate, allow me to provide some introductory information about myself. I am a fourth year PhD student in the Political Science Department. I began my program in the fall of 2010 after moving to Southern Illinois from the Minneapolis / St. Paul metropolitan area. I completed my BA degree at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, MN; an institution designed to accommodate the specific needs of non-traditional students. I attended Metro State part time from 2006 – 2009 where I graduated a mere two weeks shy of my 40th birthday. I have three children ranging in age from my stepdaughter who is 25 (though I have been told that I do not look old enough to have a child that age) to my son who is turning 16 in February. My professional experience includes 6 & ½ years in the US Navy (1987-1993), six years in the private sector, and a thirteen-plus year career in public service not including my time here at SIU. I have been active in the organized labor movement since about 2000 participating at all levels of activism including lobbying elected officials, organizing internally and externally, and serving as a representative to national and international labor organizations. I have met many graduate assistants during my time in Carbondale and more so since I became your Vice President for Membership in August 2012. I certainly hope that I will meet even more of you during the upcoming semester and bargaining season.
One of the benefits of union representation is the ability to collectively bargain an employment contract with the university. Employment contracts have, similar to our GA contracts, beginning and ending dates that are established and agreed upon. Our current contract expires June 30, 2014 and your Executive Committee has been identifying issues to raise in the upcoming round of contract negotiations. Primary among those issues are wage rates and benefits as well as a wide array of conditions of employment. Not every issue that GAs face in their working environment is covered by the contract, but many are. Ultimately, the goal of the bargaining team (separate from the Executive Committee; for more on the distinction, please read on) is to secure the best deal for everyone in the bargaining unit irrespective of their status as a dues paying members of GA United.
Let’s talk briefly about terminology. You will hear the terms “contract negotiations” and “bargaining” (or the aforementioned “collective bargaining”) used interchangeably to refer to the same process. The process involves representatives from GA United as well as representatives from the other unions (public employees, electricians, Teamsters, etc.) sitting down in a physical space with representatives from the university to present proposals for and discussions of issues relevant to the relationship between you, the university employee, and the university. There will be mutually agreed upon dates for these “bargaining sessions” throughout next year. The process is initiated when GA United along with the other unions file an official “Intent to Bargain” sometime in March, 2014. The process can be long and drawn out (our previous contract was in the making for well over a year), but all interested parties have a vested interest in crafting a new agreement and putting it in place as soon as it is feasible to do so. The bargaining team is comprised of dues paying members who have volunteered to participate in the process and been appointed by the Executive Committee.
The first meeting (not yet scheduled) is reserved for the two sides to make their initial proposals; GAU bargaining team members receive instruction from both the Executive Committee and the General Membership (the first General Membership meeting will be in February this year – announcements forthcoming) as to which issues are to be proposed. All issues are prioritized and presented within the context of the current agreement. The university has a separate process to determine their initial proposal and upon receipt, your union is eager to make that proposal available for members to review. Only dues paying members are eligible to vote on any final contract proposal.
As I am sure you suspect, there is a LOT more to the process than these scheduled meetings. Proposals are evaluated for their potential impact on the membership outside of these scheduled meetings and members of the bargaining team discuss which proposals are acceptable and which are not, which proposals are beneficial and those which are not. I have shared with others that, in my experience, much of the visible interaction between the union and university bargaining teams is tantamount to political theater; with the various groups vying to get the attention of their counterparts and attempts being made to marshal support from various stakeholders.
Do not be surprised if you are approached by members of the bargaining team and the Executive Committee during the run up to and during the bargaining season asking for feedback or suggestions on which issues are most important to you. As a democratically run organization that is desirous of having a bottom-up approach, we eagerly solicit input from graduate assistants across the campus and university system. You may see tables with representatives in common areas designed to answer questions about the union or you may see us in your workspace during one of our more informal “walkthroughs”.
One guiding principle that I would like to communicate to all readers is that your Executive Committee and bargaining team are committed to the bargaining process being done with efficiency, effectiveness, and expediency. I believe I can speak for members past and present in stating plainly that we reject the notion that it requires months and months of ongoing negotiations to reach agreement and that your bargaining team wishes to avoid any unnecessary delays in securing a good contract for our members. It is worth mentioning that the last round of bargaining took an inordinate amount of time and resulted in our members working without a contract for well over a year. In addition, all the unions in negotiations were brought to the brink of a work stoppage (aka strike) before contract terms were settled. Unfortunately, faculty had to engage in a strike in order to solidify their contract.
A strike or work stoppage is always the tactic of absolute last resort; such activity has long term deleterious effects for workers, the university, the students, and the surrounding community. It has the potential for effecting the culture and reputation of the university as well; by products that should be avoided wherever possible.
One thing to keep in mind at all times is that contract negotiations is not about making good arguments; as grad students, making logical, reasoned arguments is our strength. Securing good contracts is all about POWER. For unions, it is about membership numbers. Plain and simple. The more members we have, the more clout me have at the bargaining table. If you have been on the fence about joining or have decided that there are plenty of others involved so your participation is not necessary, I strongly encourage you to rethink your position. Also, keep in mind that your bargaining team and Executive Committee are all volunteers. While the employer is able to direct their substantial resources to move their interests to the fore, the union struggles with very finite resources. Join GA United. Attend events and rallies. Get off the sidelines and into the game. Whether you are here at SIU for another six months or plan to be here six more years, your energies and efforts are our most valuable resource.