MSCA and COP return to bargaining table

The Massachusetts State College Association (MSCA) authorized a return to contract bargaining with the Board of Higher Education (BHE) and the Council of Presidents (COP) on Feb. 1. 

MSCA President CJ O’Donnell wrote in a statement, “This was neither an easy nor unanimous decision. We are in a time-sensitive position, and we believe this is the clearest path for us to obtain our raises and the benefits that were mutually agreed to.” 

The MSCA, a union comprised of faculty and librarians from the nine state universities, has been negotiating with the BHE since January 2017 to reach a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The CBA outlines the conditions under which the union agrees to work. It is valid for three years.

The current CBA bargaining process has been delayed numerous times – particularly over concerns and confusion regarding the financial parameters of the contract. 

The MSCA and the BHE finally reached a tentative CBA in April 2018, nine months after the end of the previous CBA. On June 20, 2018, the MSCA ratified the tentative agreement. 

Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago then signed it on July 16, according to a statement from O’Donnell.

Under Massachusetts General Law 150E, 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). The funding request was not submitted until almost four months past that deadline. 

In September, the MSCA filed an unfair labor practice charge against Santiago and the BHE because of the delay. 

Robert Donohue, psychology professor and MSCA vice president, said the delay placed the union in a bad position, putting off pay raises and exacerbating tensions between union members and the COP across campuses. “I have no way to understand why the commissioner and the Board of Higher Education thought stalling the funding request was in anyone’s interest.” 

Vincent Pedone, executive director of the COP, said in September 2018 that the delay was related to the concern that the CBA cost more than the state had authorized the BHE to give. 

During bargaining, the BHE team was given the authority to offer no more than a 2-percent cost increase for each of its labor contracts. The bargaining team interpreted this to mean a 2-percent salary increase, which it granted during negotiations with the MSCA. 

However, Pedone said for this round of bargaining, the OER included cost items such as equivalencies, stipends, and financial benefits for faculty in addition to salary increases when calculating the cap. 

According to Pedone, this has never been the policy before, and the bargaining team could not have anticipated this. As a result, the MSCA and BHE ratified and signed a contract that exceeded the financial parameters the BHE had been given by the state. 

Despite these concerns, if the contract had been submitted on deadline and rejected, the MSCA and the BHE would have had to legally return to bargaining months earlier. Pedone said, “I think everyone is in agreement that if things moved a little more quickly, we wouldn’t be in this position.”  

Pedone said while he could not speak on Santiago’s behalf and could only share what he understood, “the 150E process was strained and we [the COP] requested that the commissioner submit the letter, but the commissioner’s position was, ‘Why have this rejected when we can return to bargaining and resolve the issues that we know exist?’” 

Donohue said during the delay, the COP and BHE were “in contact with the MSCA telling us that they wanted us to return to the bargaining table.” 

He said it was “remarkably stupid for them to think the union could or would go back to the bargaining table in a process that was completely outside the legal statute that defined the procedure of the collective bargaining process.” 

On the day the case against Santiago and the BHE was due to be heard, “The Board of Higher Education basically copped a plea,” Donohue said. 

The BHE approached the MSCA and told them if they stopped the legal process against the BHE, Santiago would forward the funding request to the OER, according to Donohue.  

The MSCA agreed. Donohue added, “Although we really would have loved to have gotten the legal determination that the commissioner was violating the state law, rather than drag out that legal process, we focused on getting the funding request to move forward.” 

Santiago submitted the request on Dec. 11, 2018. 

On Dec. 18, the OER rejected the funding request. Under Massachusetts General Law 150E, the rejection meant the CBA was returned to both parties to continue bargaining. 

In a post on the MSCA website, O’Donnell pointed out specific language in the funding request that he believed effectively asked the OER to reject it. He said, “It seems the BHE set up the rejection given the manner in which the BHE submitted the request.”

Donohue called the funding request “inaccurate and inflated,” because it did not account for cost savings in the CBA that could help to offset any cost increases and keep the overall amount under 2 percent. Offsetting the costs in this way is not without precedent. 

In fall 2018, the OER recommended the state legislature not fund the contract for the Association of Professional Administrators (APA), another state university union that bargains with the BHE. The contract was rejected on the grounds that it, too, exceeded the 2-percent cost increase cap. 

However, members of the COP, BHE, and APA argued because the newly bargained contract saved money in other areas, the overall increase in the cost of the contract did not exceed 2 percent, and the APA contract was funded.

In September, Pedone told The Gatepost the COP and BHE planned to attempt the same process with the MSCA contract. But after some investigation, the state administration and the individual campuses were unable to find ways of offsetting the costs in the MSCA contract. 

Pedone said, “From our perspective, there is not a way for us to find savings included in this contract that would cover the cost” increases the OER identified. 

He emphasized they will only be addressing cost items in the re-negotiation. The rest of the contract will remain as it was agreed upon. 

For the new round of negotiations, the BHE has delegated more responsibility to the COP and the group will have “more seats at the table,” according to Pedone. 

Donohue said, “I think this is extremely important because the Board of Higher Education and the Council of Presidents play this game where they point to the other side and say, ‘It’s not us – it’s them.’ And I’m heartened that we’re going to just say, ‘No, Council of Presidents – it’s you.”

Pedone said, “Assigning blame, from an emotional perspective, is satisfying. However, the process is what it is.” He added the extensive checks and balances that are legally required on the BHE side of bargaining led to the return to negotiations. 

FSU President F. Javier Cevallos said while a team representing the COP is at the bargaining table, the final outcome is decided by the BHE. “They are the authority.” 

Virginia Rutter, sociology professor and member of the MSCA bargaining team, said she and other faculty members have been disappointed by Cevallos’ response to the prolonged bargaining. “I don’t hear anything like a sense of accountability on his part, personally.”

Rutter said early on in the bargaining process, back in May 2017, the MSCA bargaining team realized the BHE/COP bargaining team was not prepared at meetings and were delaying the process. 

So, a group of professors wrote a letter to the President signed by faculty – particularly senior faculty who had been “investing in the institution for a long time,” she added.  

“And we said, ‘Javier, we’re really worried that your folks don’t come prepared,’” she said. “And what he said to us in a note is: ‘This is just how bargaining goes.’

 “When he first said it, it was patronizing: ‘This is how bargaining goes.’ But when he kept saying it, and what I said to the Board of Trustees when I addressed them at the last meeting, is that after you repeat that many times in the context of the facts, it feels like gaslighting. 

“It feels like a situation where people in authority are saying, ‘What you see happening is not really happening,’” Rutter said.

Cevallos said he hopes the contract can be settled soon and that the faculty can get their pay raises and back pay. “In spite of all the rhetoric that you may hear, we do care deeply about our faculty, and I certainly don’t want to be in a place where our faculty are unhappy and feel unappreciated. And that’s very sad when you have that perception and that attitude, because that’s not the reality.”

Cevallos said he does advocate for the faculty, but “I am one of nine voices [on the COP] … In the end, the contract is ratified by the BHE. They are the employer of record. … It is a long process, and I am just one of many pieces.” 

The MSCA and the COP have agreed to meet for a new round of bargaining on Feb. 20 at Worcester State University. 

Cevallos said, “My hope is that we will settle everything on the 20th. One day – just agree and move on.”