Support staff union files report; still no contract

By Lindsey Salvatelli

DeKALB — Members of the support staff union have filed a report with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board against the university for what spokeswoman Sarah Dorner said is a failure to bargain in good faith.

The 700 administrative professionals, or support staff, who were certified by the Illinois Educational Relation Labor Board in October of 2015 have been negotiating with the university for an initial collective bargain agreement since Feb. 15, 2016.

If the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board does find the university has failed to bargain in good faith, it could be fined.

Local 1890 President Laura Harris said she first became aware of NIU’s wage disparities after she looked at the State Universities Civil Services Systems website and learned NIU is the lowest paying university in Illinois.

“They’re just at the minimum at what people in similar positions at other state universities make,” Harris said.

Membership of NIU’s chapter of the union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 Local 1890, has decreased to around 620 because of layoffs and “attrition,” Dorner said.

The unfair labor practice complaint has not yet been issued by the state labor board. If the board finds any merit in the charge, the case would be heard by an administrative judge.

“We expect the board to issue a complaint any day now,” Dorner said.

The bargaining process has been slow-going, part of which Dorner said could be attributed to the nearly three-year budget impasse but also a failure to reach agreement on “boilerplate issues.”

“Usually by now, if we’re almost two years into negotiations, it’s down to economics, but there are still non-economic issues out there,” Dorner said.

NIU spokesperson Lisa Miner said “it’s not unusual” for contract agreements to take a couple of years, or more.

Dorner said up until a meeting held Oct. 12, university representatives had failed to respond to information requests and offered reduced standing contracts during bargaining. Information is used by the union to gather documents pertaining to its employer’s past practices.

Jesse Perez, director of Employee and Labor relations, offered a proposal to pay overtime after 40 hours; overtime is currently set at 37 and a half hours, Dorner said.

One of the information requests Dorner said the university has denied is regularly providing job descriptions so the union can ensure employees aren’t performing jobs outside of their classification.

“As the university tries to recover from the lack of state budget, we have lost several employees through attrition,” Dorner said. “So across campus, the story of three workers doing the work of five or six is standard now.”

A potential wage increase

During the Sept. 20 State of the University Address, acting President Lisa Freeman announced she would seek approval from the Board of Trustees Thursday to increase eligible employees’ wages by 3 percent. The increase would apply to graduate assistants; temporary supportive professional staffers who’ve been reappointed for more than three years; and employees hired before Dec. 31 and not involved in any current bargaining contracts, according to a Sept. 21 press release.

Dorner responded to the remarks with a letter to Freeman, suggesting the university was “missing the mark” by not including the union in the wage increase.

“At $10.78 an hour, a 37 and a half work hour ends up being 400 bucks every week,” Harris said. “After taxes and everything like that, they may be making maybe $600 to $800 a month.”

The union’s bargaining unit has since reached some tentative agreements with the university that would make the group eligible for the 3 percent wage increase if approved by the Board during Thursday’s special meeting, but the group has yet to bring about an initial contract with the university, Dorner said.

“The agreement on the increments is a tentative agreement, and its approval depends on the rest of the contract; the total contract being settled,” Miner said. “And NIU is committed to continued progress toward that resolution.”

Some of the tentative agreements made during the Oct. 12 meeting included allowing union orientation and access to personal files.

Dorner said most of the unit hasn’t received wage increases in about seven years, and when the university offered its economic proposals to Local 1890 committee March 7, it was to freeze wages.

The union has been in disagreement with the university in the past. In August, the Illinois Labor Relations Board decided a complaint made by the union against NIU to increase parking passes had merit. An administrative law judge ordered NIU to rescind the parking cost increase and pay back the union members, according to court documents.

“We believe that we have fair and reasonable proposals on the table that reflect most initial agreements with state universities,” Dorner said. “We hope the employer will do the right thing, come to the table and agree to what would be a fair and standard contract in the state of Illinois.”