By Joshua L. Warden, Union Representative
In April community allies in Buffalo rallied at Canisius College around 70 facilities maintenance workers, represented by SEIU Local 200United, whose reopener negotiations had reached a standstill. The demonstration drew approximately 150 people from the membership, student body, faculty, labor, faith and elected communities. The primary issue of contention revolved around wages: The college’s negotiation team claimed that raises could not be justified under the existing budget, yet administrative salaries had inflated to arguably excessive levels over the years.
A second reopener began in July and the initial session appeared to be heading in the same direction, with the college offering no increase to wages and proposing a health care plan of lesser value to the membership than their existing plan. However, before the union could prepare a response to the proposal made by the college at the first session, management called the union back to the table, offering a one percent raise for the 2014-2015 year, without retroactivity. It was minimal movement, but movement nonetheless, and the real bargaining began.
The union resisted the initial offer of the college, and proposed the idea of resolving the current and future reopeners all at once (the July reopener was one of four scheduled in the five-year contract). The college appreciated the idea, and returned to the table offering to remove their proposal to change the members’ healthcare plan and refrain from changing the plan through July 2016. Maintaining the current healthcare was the single greatest concern reported by members in their surveys, and the plans of many non-union campus employees had recently been replaced with plans of lesser value. The union approved the proposal and a tentative agreement soon followed.
The agreement resolved the wage reopeners for 2013 through 2016, and was ratified 40 to 9. One final reopener is scheduled for July 2016 before the full contract is up for negotiations in July 2017. The agreement contained a one percent raise in both 2014 and 2015 with retroactivity, and in staying true to the union’s message of closing the widening income gap at the college, the bargaining committee also negotiated a lump sum bonus to the lowest paid job classifications within the membership. The members will retain their current healthcare benefits until 2016, and any additional holidays declared by the president of the college will be extended to the union membership without the need to bargain.
The union is hopeful that the agreement represents a change in demeanor between labor and management, and has recognized a more positive bargaining relationship since the arrival of the new Vice President of Business and Finance, Marco Benedetti. The bargaining committee feels that Benedetti was honest and realistic about the financial state of the college, while still making a genuine attempt to work within those confines to appease the interests of the membership.
The rally held in April was integral to breaking the new ground, and the membership at Canisius is highly appreciative of the efforts of everyone who was involved. Marching next to complete strangers who showed up in support has reinforced their belief that solidarity is still alive. The union leadership at the college extends a special thanks to students and faculty. As Chris Ring, Chapter Chair of the union said, “Their support was crucial. They were there for us when we needed them and we hope we can return the favor one day.”