April 29, 2012

As Deficit Shrinks, Cornell to Negotiate Contract With Staff

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As Cornell employees’ three-year contract approaches its expiration date of June 30, the University will begin negotiations with the United Auto Workers Local 2300, the union that represents a majority of Cornell’s staff.

Jack Kaminsky, president of the UAW Local 2300, said that negotiators will discuss wage rates during contract negotiations with University administrators, especially given the University’s financial rebound since the 2008 recession.

Cornell’s fiscal outlook was recently revised by Moody’s Investors Service — a major credit rating agency — from “negative” to “stable,” The Sun reported in April. Additionally, the University reduced its deficit from $148 million in 2009 to $40 million in 2011.

But in 2008, Kaminsky said, “the market crashed and Cornell suffered financial loss.”

“Since then, they have rebounded, and we feel that we helped them through that period of time to the best of our abilities,” he said. “We were asked to do more with less and we did that. We feel the need to be compensated for it.”

According to Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, the University is restricted by funding limitations, which she attributed to student opposition to raising tuition; reduced or stagnant state funding; the slow growth of research funding; and the ongoing recovery of investments after the 2008 financial crisis, among other things.

“We just don’t have sources when we look at that analysis. We do what we best can to give, but we have to balance out,” she said. “We are not that different from most employers. We don’t want to let more people go.”

But with the increase in the cost of living, Kaminsky said that Cornell employees are “feeling the crunch like everyone else with the price of gas and central goods always on the rise.”

According to the Alternatives Federal Credit Union, a full-time worker in Tompkins County must earn $11.67 per hour to afford the cost of living — a five-percent increase from $11.11 per hour two years ago.

While the cost of living in Tompkins County has risen and the University has increased staff’s wages, Opperman said that salary increases “have been modest.”

“As cost of living goes up, it’s going to affect everyone and especially our staff and our lower-paid staff,” she said.

Additionally, Opperman said that after administrators conducted a University-wide employee survey in 2011, the University determined that employees are currently facing three main problems: increased workload, a lack of career development and increasing living costs.

“The staff survey brought out a number of issues related to workload, resulting primarily from the downsizing [of the workforce],” Opperman said. “When you look now, we are down about 800 positions [from what we had] three years ago.”

Subsequently, contract negotiators have pegged employees’ increased workload as a “major concern” to discuss with the University, according to Kaminsky.

“In every survey — whether it was a survey that the UAW sent down or a survey that Cornell sent down — you will find that workload was one of the major concerns not only for UAW members but for staff across the Cornell campus here in ithaca,” Kaminsky said.

For instance, in the 2011 University survey, 25.8 percent of Cornell employees said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed that workloads are distributed fairly within their units. Additionally, 23.5 percent of employees said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed that they are compensated fairly for the work they do.

Staff cuts have also reduced career development opportunities for staff by restricting the movement of employees between different jobs within the University, according to Opperman.

“[Staff] are looking for ways to grow within their own jobs, but they also want us to give them skills that will help them try for other jobs when opportunities do open up,” she said.

While both Cornell administrators and the UAW expressed hope for a “respectful, collective bargaining process” in the upcoming negotiations, Kaminsky remained uncertain about the University’s stand on wages.

“I hope for the best, but I have no idea what Cornell has in mind for us,” he said.

Currently, University administrators plan to gather more information about staff issues throughout the summer and into the next academic year at open meetings and forums, according to Opperman.

Original Author: Manu Rathore