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September 3, 1998

Custodians, groundskeepers sign contract, 1st in almost three years

A contract between the University and union groundskeepers, custodians and other service workers was approved by union membership Aug. 25, ending a nearly three-year stalemate.

According to Ken Service, Public Affairs spokesperson, the University is expected to sign the agreement soon. "We have an agreement with the union. Right now, we're just cleaning up the final version in terms of typos and that kind of thing, but the University is looking at the signing as a formality." Local 29 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), AFL-CIO, had been without a contract since Dec. 31, 1995. Union employees had been working under month-by-month contract extensions since then. According to SEIU-Local 29 president Billy Joe Jordan, the contract passed by a vote of 175-102. There are 363 members in the local.

Under the new contract, employees automatically will be "disenrolled" from University health care insurance benefits plans, including medical, prescription drug, vision and dental insurance benefits, as of midnight, Sept. 30, 1998. The contract states that effective Oct. 1, 1998, "all members of the bargaining unit shall begin participation in the Pittsburgh Building Owners Welfare Fund (PBOWF)" for comparable benefits. The University has agreed to contribute $175 per month toward each employee's PBOWF premiums (or $375 per month for PBOWF family subscribers) from Oct. 1, 1998, through June 30, 1999. Effective July 1, 1999, Pitt agreed to contribute that amount plus 65 percent of any increase in the monthly PBOWF premium costs unless the total of those costs exceeds the University's contribution to non-union staff, in which case the issue of payment will be re-opened for negotiation. Union members will remain participants, however, in the University's long-term disability benefit program and group life and accidental death and dismemberment term insurance on the same basis as non-union staff. Union members also may participate in Pitt's group dependent life term insurance plan. "I'm still not really satisfied," Jordan said of the new agreement. "I think the main reason some voted against the new contract was the medical benefits issue. I think it's just too much to pay." Upon ratification of the new contract by both parties, workers will pay $29 per month for individual coverage and $61 per month for family coverage above the University's contribution, and 35 percent of any future premium increases, according to Jordan. The new contract runs until Dec. 31, 1999, and its pay structure is retroactive to Jan. 1, 1997. Workers will receive a 3 percent raise retroactive to July 1, 1997, through Dec. 31, 1997. Covering January 1998 through calendar-year 1998, raises will be 2.5 percent over end-of-1997 adjusted pay, with an additional 2.5 percent raise in January 1999. Also, each employee who is on the active payroll as of the ratification date will receive a one-time payment of $200 as a "signing bonus" to counterbalance the absence of raises in the first half of 1997. The flat-fee bonus is to be included in employees' regular paychecks within 45 days of the date of ratification. (Local 29 employees are paid every other week.) Another concern of union members, according to Jordan, is the possibility that the University will force custodians to change work shifts to night-turn. "The University told us about six months ago they might do this, so members knew about it [before the vote]," Jordan said. "But some are very upset by it." Terms of the contract grant the University "the exclusive right to manage and operate its business and operations in such a manner as it sees fit, including (but not limited to) the right to determine the methods and means by which its operations are to be carried on, to direct the workforce, to reassign employees within their classifications and workgroups and to conduct its operations in an efficient manner," subject only to the limitations of the agreement. Pitt spokesperson Service acknowledged that the University was studying the shift of some workers to night-turn in the interest of efficiency. "Areas of high usage, like classrooms and public areas, are simply difficult to clean during the day," Service said. "But there is no plan or timeframe for this. It's just under study." According to Jordan, under the contract language, the University is well within its rights to make the shift change.

"I wish I could have gotten more for the workers," Jordan said. "But I think they were tired [of being without a contract]. I was at a disadvantage since I kind of came in in the middle of negotiations. The former union leadership had agreed to some of the language that I'm not happy with." Jordan became Local 29 president in June 1997.

Regarding the relatively short length of the contract, which expires in less than 16 months, Jordan said, "There was talk of a longer contract at first. But I think we wanted to get another crack at it sooner and not be locked in for too long." Under the contract, either party must notify the other in writing of its desire to continue, modify or terminate the agreement 60 days prior to Dec. 31, 1999.

Union members voted down a contract proposal in November 1997 by an almost 2:1 margin even though University and union negotiators had announced a tentative agreement that October.

According to Jordan, health care options for employees were the main reason union members turned down that contract last year. Raises and the length of the contract were also issues, he said.

In 1997 negotiations, the union sought to receive medical benefits solely through the PBOWF, with Pitt paying the full costs of those benefits. The University would agree to that condition only through June 1998, but would ask workers to pay 15 percent of any increases in premiums after that date.

The union also was seeking a five-year agreement, retroactive to Jan. 1, 1996, with 3 percent wage increases for each contract year, while the University offered a three-year deal with 2 percent raises for the first two years and "negotiated raises" for the third.

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 1

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