MSCA ratifies new tentative agreement

Graphic by Kathleen Moore

The Massachusetts State College Association (MSCA), the faculty and librarian union for the state colleges and universities, ratified a second version of the 2017-2020 collective bargaining agreement March 29.

The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a document that outlines the conditions under which faculty and librarians agree to work. It is negotiated between the MSCA and a bargaining team comprised of representatives from the Board of Higher Education (BHE) and the state universities’ Council of Presidents (COP).

The two parties have been engaged in a contentious bargaining process since January 2017. The frequent setbacks in the negotiations have been attributed in part to delays relating to the funding parameters provided by the state.

According to a post on the MSCA website, the two bargaining teams finally reached a new tentative agreement following an 11-hour meeting March 4.

Now that MSCA members have voted to ratify the agreement, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago must sign off. When the agreement is signed, Santiago has one month to submit a funding request to the Office of Employee Relations. If the request is approved by the governor and the legislature, the contract will be funded and go into full effect.

Vincent Pedone, executive director of the COP, said the two parties are currently finalizing the contract language. “I suspect that we will have that contract actually written and ready to go by early next week. And I do not anticipate the commissioner having any pause when he sees the contract.”

The MSCA and the BHE/COP bargaining teams already reached a tentative agreement back in April 2018. After the MSCA ratified the contract, Santiago did not submit it to the legislature for approval until nearly four months past the deadline set by Massachusetts General Law 150E.

When the CBA was submitted in December 2018, the Office of Employee Relations rejected the contract because the BHE did not properly evaluate the cost and it exceeded the amount the BHE had been approved to offer.

Virginia Rutter, sociology professor, vice president of the FSU chapter of the MSCA, and member of the MSCA bargaining team, said, “We had to go back to bargaining because of problems on the presidents’ side and on the Board of Higher Ed’s side that included breaking the rules and, above all, breaking our trust.”

Regarding the bargaining process, FSU President F. Javier Cevallos said, “There are some lessons we have certainly learned from our side. Any time a proposal comes to the table, we have to fully understand the cost of the proposal. The mistake that happened – the big mistake – was having something in the contract and agreeing to it without understanding the costs.”

Pedone said the process was also delayed because the BHE/COP bargaining team didn’t receive the financial parameters until “well into a year” of bargaining.

He added, “And there was a lot of pressure on both sides to get a contract done, because we were coming up on commencement and members of our campus community were considering actions during commencement. Nobody wanted that, so we worked under pressure to get this contract done.”

The new CBA, if funded by the state, will expire next summer, meaning the parties will return to bargaining as soon as January 2020. Pedone said for the next contract negotiations, he is making it a “top priority” to receive the financial parameters from the state beforehand.

Both Pedone and Cevallos said they are “confident” the newly ratified contract will be approved by the governor.

Cevallos added, “My hope is that we will get the contract approved for payment … very, very soon so our faculty can get paid – the sooner, the better.”  

Robert Donohue, psychology professor and statewide MSCA vice president, said he is less assured of the outcome. “I’m in a position now where I’ll believe things when they happen. I’m skeptical of everything at this point. There’s a lot of steps in the process, and we need to fly through these steps so that we can get this collective bargaining agreement funded.”

In negotiating the 2017-2020 contract, Donohue said the MSCA hoped to increase faculty and librarian pay to a level more consistent with comparable institutions and win better workload rates on course equivalencies. 

Course equivalencies allow faculty to count out-of-classroom work such as lab, internship advising, and independent study toward classroom credit hours to create a more manageable workload.

The MSCA and BHE/COP team came to an agreement on equivalencies in the April 2018 contract. However, this agreement was removed from the newly ratified contract.

Cevallos said he thinks the contract “has a lot of good things for the faculty,” including increased family leave and an increase in the payment per credit hour for part-time faculty.

He added, “I think overall, it’s going to be a positive contract for everybody.”

Some members of the MSCA do not share this same view. Rutter said, “We met and we struggled and we struggled and we struggled and we came to an agreement. We found it acceptable, but acceptable is not the same thing as making an ‘A.’”

Following the final bargaining session, COP Chair Francis McDonald sent out an email in which he categorized the agreement reached between the MSCA and the management bargaining team as “amicable.” 

Donohue and other MSCA members disagreed with this characterization.

He also said the MSCA was “put up against a deadline” that meant they could potentially lose a year of pay raises.

Donohue added, “So, in that context, we agreed to modifying the collective bargaining agreement that we had already ratified. And then the next day, the Council of Presidents sent out a message saying that we had reached an ‘amicable’ agreement, like the union was happy with that process. And it really begs the question: ‘Are they that disingenuous, or are they that stupid?’”

Pedone said he noticed there was frustration on both sides during the bargaining process. “I was taken aback by some of the rhetoric. President McDonald was offering an opportunity to put the contentious bargaining behind all of us, so I support his statement.”

Cevallos said, “The bargaining process, by definition, is always tense because we are arguing things across the table. So, to look at things as always being friendly and smooth is not realistic because there are going to be issues and people will disagree.”

He added, “What I think the chair of the Council of Presidents wanted to say is, in spite of all those differences, we came to an agreement that we are all happy with.”  

Donohue said he finds it “rather convenient to just attribute every aspect of the process to some kind of inherently tense nature of it.”

He added he’s been involved in negotiating higher ed contracts since 1987 and has dealt with many different management teams in that time. “There’s a real difference between the inherent conflict and the … gratuitous obnoxiousness that we encountered.”

As the contract bargaining has stretched on over the past few years, both the MSCA and the COP have discussed the struggles surrounding funding within public higher education.  

Cevallos said the reality is public universities only have two sources of funding: the state and students. “We all are worried about the cost of education and how expensive it is getting. And even if we are affordable, we are not inexpensive.”

Pedone said all the university presidents are involved in advocating for more funding for public higher education to make college more accessible. He said, “Our public colleges and universities are at a tipping point where cost of attendance is becoming a barrier to degree attainment.”

He added, “So, I’m in Washington today. We had meetings all day yesterday. We had breakfast meetings this morning. I’m flying directly into Boston at 2 o’clock and I have a meeting at the State House at 3. What does it mean to advocate? It means talking to people, trying to get lawmakers both in Washington and Boston to support – with direct or indirect funding – the operation of our institutions.”

Donohue agreed the state should be providing more support and said both the MSCA and the COP are on the same side when it comes to advocating for more higher education funding. However, he believes the COP could be doing more to support the union contract.

He reference former FSU President Timothy Flanagan who, during another “unpleasant” bargaining period, urged the entire COP to call for a fair and reasonable contract for the MSCA.

When the other COP members refused, Flanagan published supportive op/eds under his own name. He even wore a union button saying, “We deserve a fair contract” when he met with the governor. “So, we’ve had presidents here who were publicly willing to go out on their own and advocate for a fair and reasonable contract for the MSCA. That’s what we don’t see at all from the COP now.”

Cevallos said, “I think we just want to continue to move forward as an institution and put all this bad history behind us and look forward to doing what faculty really do best – which is teaching and working with students, mentoring, being in the classrooms and labs.”

Rutter said Massachusetts has been doing well in terms of tax revenue, but funding for public higher education continues to decline.

“Decisions about how money gets spent on education, including faculty and librarian pay, are decisions that are political decisions, not financial decisions,” Rutter said. “There’s a thing I tell my students: when they say we don’t have money, they mean we don’t have money for you.”