Contract negotiations and bargaining can appear to be a daunting, long, and drawn-out process. GAU Vice-President for Communications Kevin Taylor recently contacted GAU Lead Negotiator Jim Podesva and Bargaining Team Spokesperson and Contract Enforcement Specialist Sandy Kim to ask both of them about the ins and outs of the process.
Kevin Taylor: The previous contract with the university expired on June 30, 2014. Shouldn’t we have had the new contract ready to go right away to start August 1, 2014? Why the delay? Has this resulted in any lost benefits on the part of graduate students? For example, in the old contract we received a raise every new academic year; did we receive a raise this year? Is everyone affected or just union members?
Jim Podesva: It would have been great if we’d had a new contract all ready to go, but both sides have to agree on it. It is hard to coordinate schedules, particularly during the summer, so both sides agreed that substantive bargaining would occur in the fall.
Sandy Kim: As you can imagine, it can be a time-consuming process, particularly with the difficulties scheduling meeting times for a dozen meeting to come together. GAs are covered by the terms of our old Agreement until a new one is agreed upon and signed, so we are still covered until our new Agreement takes hold. When our new Agreement is approved, it will apply retroactively from the time of expiration of our old contract. Continuing with your example, if we are able to negotiate a raise for graduate assistants for this academic year, it would apply retroactively, which should result in back pay for the length of our contracts working under the expired Agreement (so, for most of us, August – new contract). This affects all graduate assistants who are covered by the contract, dues-paying member or not.
Kevin: In March last semester GAU and several other unions came together with their “Intent to Bargain Rally.” What was the significance of that to the current contract negotiations?
Sandy: Since all unions are bargaining at the same time, we wanted to publicly show solidarity with the other unions as we kicked off the bargaining process. While the interests of each union may be different, fundamentally each union desires an equitable contract for its members that is the product of good-faith bargaining. Hopefully, we will be able to continue holding joint events which is a great way to energize and mobilize members. Along those lines, some of our interests will necessarily align with those of some of the other unions and those would be good opportunities around which we can hold events and maintain open lines of communication with our University colleagues.
Kevin: So we’re in the midst of bargaining. Who is involved and why? For the Union and for the University.
Sandy: Our team is led by Jim Podesva (History), as our Lead Negotiator, with Bob Velez (Political Science) as Lead Negotiator Support, or Jim’s right-hand man. I (Sandy Kim – Political Science) serve as the Bargaining Team Spokesperson and Contract Enforcement Specialist. James Anderson (MCMA) is our Secretary-Recorder, and David Guggenheim (Business), Joel Amnott (Philosophy), and John Flowers (Philosophy) all serve as Co-Statisticians and Observers. Our team also includes Bret Seferian, who is our IEA/NEA Uniserv Director.
The Board’s team is led by Gary Kinsel (Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry), along with Deborah Nelson (General Counsel), Scott Ishman (Associate Dean of the College of Science), Lori Stettler (Assistant Vice Chancellor for Auxiliary Services), Katie Sermersheim (Dean of Students), Justin Schoof (Chair of Geography and Environmental Resources), and Beth Chester, who serves as their Note Taker.
Kevin: Are these things combative? What’s it like to be negotiating with the University? And how has the change in administration these past few months changed the dynamic?
Jim: There’s no doubt about it, the negotiations surrounding the last contract were adversarial and combative. There didn’t seem to be any real effort on the part of the administration to come to an agreement, and we fought every point, no matter how inconsequential. I’m pleased to say that with the change in administration there is also a change in tone to the current negotiations. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of stalling and negativity, but of course we’ll have to see how it goes further down the road.
Sandy: The sessions we have held haven’t felt particularly combative. At this point in the process, we’ve agreed upon the “Ground Rules” that will apply to the entire bargaining process and held the first of three scheduled meetings for each team to present their interests. We have yet to begin the substantive discussion on each individual issue yet, but based on the first handful of meetings we have had, I am optimistic for a bargaining season that is more collaborative than combative. By allowing each team to present their interests, without necessarily being married to specific terms or language, the goal is to have open and honest conversation and dialogue for each interest and together, come up with terms and language that is amenable to both sides of the table. The changes in administration seem to have brought about a collective sigh of relief that this bargaining season will not be as combative and antagonistic as the last round of negotiations tended to be at times.
Kevin: How long do negotiations typically last and why? How long do we expect these negotiations to last?
Jim: I don’t mean to be flippant, but they take as long as necessary. That being said, I’m optimistic we can come to an agreement in less than a year.
Sandy: I have no idea…though I certainly hope we have a new signed contract within the academic year.
Kevin: Are there many graduate student unions? If so, is there an existing model for negotiations?
Sandy: There are roughly 30 or so in the country, though some of them are within state university systems, so not very many at all. We are fortunate to have some institutional memory on our team this time around, with Jim Podesva, our lead negotiator, who also led negotiations for our last agreement. We have also been looking at other grad union contracts for language and interests that could work well for our contract.
Jim: Sadly, there aren’t a lot of graduate unions, but that is changing. Even at elite institutions there’s a move to organize graduate assistants, and there should be. Without graduate assistants, a university can’t function, whether it is SIUC or the University of Chicago.
Kevin: What are the top items up for negotiation and why? How does GAU solicit feedback from the student body?
Sandy: Last year, we sought feedback from our membership in anticipation of the upcoming bargaining season with an online survey from which we able to determine the top three interests: fees, stipends (salaries), and healthcare. We continue to have conversations with members, and graduate assistants more generally, and these discussions will also provide items for bargaining. Serving as the Grievance Committee Chair, I’ve also dealt with a number of issues that will likely be a part of our negotiations. As we delve further into the bargaining process, we hope to hold events at which we could provide information and solicit feedback from our general membership.
Kevin: What, if anything, can students do to support the union through negotiations? Can we make negotiations go any faster or smoother?
Sandy: The most important way for GAs to support the union is to sign a membership form and become dues-paying members. Although every GA is covered by the contract, only 10 to 15 percent are dues-paying members of GAU. It’s in our best interests to be able to tell the Board’s team that we represent 50% of all GAs as opposed to 20%. It’s a numbers game in some respects, and higher membership gives us greater clout around the bargaining table. It’s a great deal easier to say we speak for our members when we have the increased numbers to back up our claims for representation. We also hope that our members, and GAs more generally, take advantage of opportunities to receive information and give feedback when we hold events and meetings related to bargaining.