MSCA files labor charge against the BHE: Union contract remains unfunded

Donald Halsing / THE GATEPOST

The Massachusetts State College Association (MSCA) filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Board of Higher Education (BHE) on Sept. 14, according to a statement by MSCA President CJ O’Donnell.

The MSCA, a union comprised of faculty and librarians from the nine state universities, filed the charge on the grounds that the BHE has failed to submit the funding request for the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the governor within the allotted time frame.

The CBA is a document created through a process of negotiations between the MSCA and the BHE. The document outlines the conditions under which the union agrees to work, including pay, workload, and evaluation procedures. It is valid for three years, after which time a newly negotiated CBA is instated.

The MSCA and the BHE finally reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement in April, nine months after the end of the CBA. The bargaining was delayed in part because the BHE had not been given approval by the governor to provide a financial offer to the union until after the previous CBA expired.

Additional points of tension during bargaining included a perceived lack of appropriate pay increases, a proposed increase in the cap on part-time faculty and a push to give administrators tenure.

On June 20, the MSCA ratified the tentative agreement. Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago signed the agreement on July 16, according to a statement from O’Donnell.

Following the Commissioner’s signature, the BHE had until Aug. 15 to submit the funding request for the agreement to the governor’s Office of Employee Relations (OER).

In a statement on the MSCA website, O’Donnell said, “Since then, the MSCA has been asking if the funding request was submitted and for a copy of the submission. Tired of the non-responses and cryptic responses, the MSCA was compelled to file this charge.”

FSU psychology professor and MSCA Vice President Robert Donohue said the BHE told them the situation was “complicated.”

He added, “From the MSCA’s position, it’s not at all complicated. You either submitted it, consistent with the law, or you didn’t.

“It is now our understanding that they had not submitted it. So, the BHE violated state statute by not submitting the tentative agreement to the Office of Employee Relations in the time limit specified by the law,” he said.

While the MSCA and the BHE, along with the state university Council of Presidents (COP), decide upon the parameters of the CBA, any so-called “cost items” must be approved by the Massachusetts governor, at which point the OER will recommend the state legislature fund the contract. The cost items include any salary increases.

Donohue said while faculty and librarians have yet to see any pay raises or back pay, the union and the BHE have been beholden to all the guidelines set forth in the CBA since the document was ratified by both parties. 

“This is highly problematic,” he said. “We’re into 14 months of retroactive pay raises, meaning we haven’t received them yet.”

He added, “We represent a lot of people who are really on the margins economically. We have a lot of adjunct and part-time faculty who are really living paycheck to paycheck, and these folks are now into their fourteenth month of waiting for money that they should have.” 

Vincent Pedone, executive director of the COP, said this new delay is related to a miscommunication between the state administration and the BHE bargaining team.

Pedone said the BHE bargaining team was given the authority to offer no more than a 2 percent cost increase for each of its labor contracts, including those with the Association of Professional Administrators (APA) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

The bargaining team interpreted this to mean a 2 percent salary increase, which it granted during negotiations with the MSCA and the APA. However, upon submitting the budgets to the Department of Higher Education, there was “pushback,” said Pedone.

Pedone said the administration was concerned that both contracts had exceeded the set financial parameters because the OER included cost items such as stipends and “financial benefits” for faculty as well as salary increases when calculating the 2 percent increase cap.

He added, “When we pushed back and said, ‘That’s not true. We gave a 2 percent salary increase. All the other increases will be borne by the universities,’ the administration held firm and said, ‘No. The parameters clearly set a 2 percent increase.’”

Over the summer, the OER recommended the state legislature not fund the APA contract because it exceeded the parameters. In protest, members of the APA, the MSCA, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association rallied together to call and email Governor Charlie Baker and their state senators and representatives.

On Sept. 19, the APA contract was approved for funding.

In an email to union members, APA President Sherry Horeanopoulos recognized the union and the COP for helping maintain interest in funding the APA contract.

She wrote, “The DHE worked to retain the interpretation we ALL had for the ‘parameters’ and kept the message on track as the process moved forward.  The membership’s commitment to keep the pressure on was, of course, the overarching factor in getting the job done.”

Pedone said the bargaining team was able to recalculate the contract to prove the overall cost increase was within 2 percent.

He added, “What [the OER] did is they identified the cost increases, but they did not look at what the campuses were saving with some of the portions of the agreement with the APA. So, we were able to offset the costs that the administration said exceeded the parameters with a recalculation of that specific contract. And ultimately, the administration agreed that we did indeed abide by the financial parameters set by the governor.”

The bargaining team is now working to repeat this same process with the MSCA, said Pedone. He hopes they can prove that the cost savings in the contract will offset the projected cost increases for an overall net increase of 2 percent.

If this approach does not work a second time and the administration determines the CBA exceeds the given financial parameters, the OER can recommend that the legislature not fund the contract.

According to Massachusetts General Law 150E, if that happens, the CBA will be returned to both parties for additional bargaining until the parameters are met.

Katy Abel, associate commissioner for external affairs for the DHE, declined to comment on the MSCA’s labor charge against the BHE or the delay in funding because it regards an ongoing negotiation.

Donohue said the faculty hope the contract issue can be resolved so everyone can “focus on other higher ed challenges and not be worrying about demanding” to be heard and paid.

He said, “I’m not the spokesperson for the statewide MSCA, so I don’t want to say I’m speaking for the MSCA. But I would hope that [the labor charge] will spur the Board of Higher Education to submit the tentative agreement to the Office of Employee Relations and stimulate the BHE to adhere to the law in the future and, frankly, embarrass them.

Donohue said, “Why do they think they don’t have to follow Massachusetts state statutes?” 

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