• Goddard College: Union says labor laws violated
    June 17,2013
     

    By Eric Blaisdell

    STAFF WRITER

    PLAINFIELD — The faculty and staff at Goddard college are alleging the administration violated federal labor law when it handed down an Aug. 1 deadline to come to an agreement on the ongoing union negotiations or financial cutbacks that the administration has proposed would be put in place.

    The school is currently negotiating a new contract with its faculty and is also negotiating a contract with the staff that voted to unionize in January. Both faculty and staff are represented by United Auto Workers Local 2322 based out of Massachusetts.

    In a joint statement released Saturday, the faculty and staff stated that the administration is not acting in good faith during this negotiating process. The statement says Friday the administration held a community meeting on campus where it presented its fiscal year 2014 forecast, including a $1.5 million deficit. The administration then laid out its proposed solutions to the deficit, which include suspension of retirement match, elimination of severance pay, a cap on faculty travel expenses and pay cuts of 5 percent for those making $30,000 to $49,999 based on full-time equivalent annualized salary and an 8 percent pay cut for those making $50,000 or more.

    The statement said the administration characterized the ongoing negotiations as an “obstacle” to its implementation of its “strategic choices” and intends to unilaterally impose the proposed financial cuts Aug. 1 if an agreement is not reached by both unions by that date. In a meeting with Times Argus staff on Friday, administrators also portrayed countering the deficit as a plan, even stating it had unanimous approval from the school’s board of trustees.

    The exact amount of the deficit is still in question, however, as Chief Financial Officer Faith Brown said in the meeting with The Times Argus that the number is $550,000. During the community meeting Friday and confirmed on Sunday, Brown said that a $1.5 million deficit is what is projected over two years if no changes are made and current economic and enrollment trends continue.

    “We’re in the process of a series of corrections and adjustments and we believe it’ll bring it down to $550,000. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. I didn’t say $1.5 million to you because that’s not where we’re going to stay ... If we can do everything we want to do by July (2014), it’ll be $550,000. Where it will ultimately be? Who knows,” Brown said during an interview on Sunday.

    According to the statement from the faculty and staff unions, “The Administration has violated federal labor law and committed an unfair labor practice by communicating to our members its intent to withdraw from good faith negotiations on an arbitrary date regardless of where the bargaining process actually stands.”

    The statement later says, “We have every confidence that a respectful negotiation process can produce labor agreements that will be good for everyone. In the meantime, it is both illegal and counterproductive for the Administration to set arbitrary deadlines or to threaten impasse. If the threats are implemented, we will take appropriate legal action.”

    Jan Clausen, chairwoman of the faculty bargaining committee, said Sunday the union is awaiting detailed financial statements from the school so it can make its own assessment of the situation and see if the projected deficit is accurate.

    Clausen said she wished the administration had discussed the financial issues privately at the bargaining table so a joint solution could be reached instead of the administration saying, “Here’s where we are going to make cuts. Here’s where we expect to end up and here’s the date on which we expect to put all this in place regardless of how you guys negotiate or what your counter proposals might be.”

    Muriel Shockley, president of the Goddard faculty union, agreed with Clausen’s interpretation, saying on Sunday that her sense of the community meeting on Friday regarding the pay cuts and benefit suspensions was “these were measures that will take place, regardless of the fact that we are fully engaged in the bargaining process.”

    The lawyers representing the school during the negotiations, Joe McConnell and Joe McNeil, issued a response to the union statement.

    “Goddard College takes very seriously its obligation to bargain in good faith with both the (faculty) and the (staff) regarding the terms and conditions of employment for organized faculty and staff at the College. As we have represented consistently at the bargaining table, the College is in the midst of a financial situation that has compelled the College to make some difficult choices and request some difficult concessions from both units,” the statement reads.

    Later on the statement reads, “Nothing in the statements made in recent presentations to the College community regarding Goddard’s financial challenges is at odds with anything we have stated directly at the bargaining table. The communications to the College community directly stated that the College cannot implement cuts to wages, benefits and working conditions with unionized employees unless there is agreement or we come to impasse ... If the parties have not reached resolution at the bargaining table or reached legal impasse in our proposals, we understand that we cannot implement any proposed changes.”

    President Barbara Vacarr and Brown sat down with The Times Argus after the community meeting Friday to discuss the financial problems facing the school and what was going to be done about them. The meeting was with this reporter and Editor Steven Pappas, as well as Kevin Ellis, a principal of KSE Partners, the lobbying/marketing firm hired by Goddard.

    In the recorded interview, Brown listed off the cuts the school planned to make and said the school is planning for the cuts to only last a year, but it would depend on if the school is still running a deficit or not. Brown said the reason for the cuts was declining enrollment, a small endowment and a sluggish economy.

    Vacarr added that another reason for the economic problems of the school was because of how the college handled changes in 2002 when Goddard closed its residential program and focused entirely on its low-residency model. Vacarr said that change helped bring back enrollment, but there had been no plan put in place for the future. She said the school is now trying to make changes by bringing in income from other sources such as leasing campus property and partnering with training programs to keep Goddard financially solvent.

    After that article appeared on the front page of Saturday’s edition, Sarah Jarvis, special assistant and chief of staff to Vacarr, called The Times Argus to say the story was not accurate as it did not specify that the pay cuts were not finalized yet and legally the school can’t make those changes without an agreement from the union or after an impasse has been reached between the union and the administration.

    In an internal email obtained by The Times Argus over the weekend, Brown wrote to the members of the faculty and staff negotiating committees that the story “mis-characterized the situation at Goddard.”

    Brown wrote that she and Vacarr clearly stated in the interview that the college was in the process of union negotiations and reductions in compensation or benefits of those in the unions would be part of the negotiations. She added that she and Vacarr emphasized they have every reason to believe that an agreement will be reached with the faculty and staff.

    In the interview Friday, the union issue was not brought up until 35 minutes into the 40-minute discussion.

    “What I would say is we are in the middle of union negotiations so I am staying away from that topic at the moment because we are in the middle of negotiations,” Vacarr said.

    When asked whether this financial news could have an impact on the negotiations, Vacarr said, “Anything can have a positive or negative impact on negotiations. I can sneeze and it does that. What I will say is that why it was really important for me to give you context, to have this conversation because this is not like times before when the college contracted and was looking to cut its employees.”

    There was never a mention by either Vacarr or Brown of the cuts being tied to union negotiations or whether or not an agreement will be reached with the union. In addition, an Aug. 1 deadline was never stated.

    On Sunday, Brown defended the email by saying, “I completely assumed that you understand that nothing gets figured out with unions until you negotiate it or you come to impasse. We never had a conversation about what it meant to work with unions. I assumed you understood what (it meant) to work with unions. In that way, I believe it was mis-characterized.”

    Brown said not everything they want to do for cuts is dependent on the unions, as there are staff who are not part of the union and the senior staff has voluntarily agreed to be a part of the cuts.

    As for her incorrect statement in the email that Saturday’s story left out the fact that both she and Vacarr told The Times Argus that they have every reason to believe that an agreement with the union would be reached, Brown said on Sunday, “I apologize. I thought we did emphasize that ... I believe and we have been saying everywhere in every conversation I had with the faculty and the staff and the board of trustees that we’ve been emphasizing that. I apologize if it didn’t come out in that conversation.”

    During the interview Friday, Brown said the administration has had the discussions about the financial cuts with the union.

    “Things are an open book. Our numbers are an open book. I have nothing to hide; we have nothing to hide with the union. It isn’t like anything we’ve told you is news or would be a surprise,” Brown said.

    What was a surprise to Clausen was Vacarr saying in Saturday’s story that layoffs will not be part of the plan to fix the deficit.

    “The comment about no layoffs was quite startling as several have been announced with a threat of more to follow,” Clausen wrote in an email to The Times Argus on Sunday. Clausen wrote that Program Director Ann Driscoll had her layoff announced several months ago, a staff member received a layoff notice last week, and they have been told to expect faculty layoffs by the end of the month. She wrote the administration “is now saying that some of the faculty layoffs may possibly be averted by voluntary leave arrangements, but that remains to be seen and all are very concerned.”

    Clausen said even with the issues the faculty and staff have with how the administration has handled the negotiations, there is still room for progress.

    “As soon as their behavior changes, the atmosphere can shift pretty quickly and become more positive,” she said.

    eric.blaisdell

    @timesargus.combody

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