PORTLAND — Saying the University of Maine System faculty union and administration are miles apart in contract negotiations, a group of educators and students took dissent directly to the system board of trustees on Sunday afternoon.
The protest outside the Glickman Family Library on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus was organized by the University of Southern Maine chapter of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, a union representing system faculty.
“It’s the first action to let them know we’re not going to go away,” said James McClymer, a professor of physics at the University of Maine and the chair of negotiations for AFUM, prior to the protest. “It will make them be able to be aware that we’re very serious about making progress on this contract and a fair contract.”
Approximately 75 protesters — some confronting trustees, university presidents and system Chancellor Richard Pattenaude walking into an afternoon of committee meetings — gathered for nearly an hour in front of a library entrance and at the corner of Bedford Street and Forest Avenue.
“We will continue to roll out publicity if needed. But we don’t want to do that,” said Ed Collom, president of the union chapter at USM and a sociology professor. “We’d rather not be out here. We like our jobs and want to do our jobs.”
Faculty members system-wide have been working without a contract since June 30 and are currently working under that expired agreement’s terms, according to McClymer. Under that deal, faculty members aren’t allowed to strike nor are administrators allowed to lock them out.
The sticking points are many, McClymer said, and the sides are now in state mediation with no end in sight. He expects the sides to eventually go into arbitration.
“I remain ever-hopeful, but not too hopeful,” he said. “I think it’ll take a while to get any progress here.”
McClymer said system administration, led by Human Resources Director Tracy Bigney and Director of Labor Relations Frank Gerry, have offered faculty an across-the-board pay raise of 0.5 percent in these negotiations.
Most protest signs read “0.5 %? NO THX” and “FAIR CONTRACT NOW!”
“Their salary proposal is insultingly low. It does essentially nothing,” McClymer said. “We’re looking for something substantially more.”
AFUM is asking for a 4 percent raise each year for the next two years, according to Matthew Killmeier, a USM media studies professor and grievance representative at the union’s USM chapter.
In their last two-year contract, McClymer said faculty didn’t take any pay raise.
“We budged last time,” he said. “Not going to budge again.”
McClymer said AFUM wants a cost-of-living increase at least similar to the 3.6 percent increase for all federal Social Security recipients announced in October.
Several AFUM representatives say the 0.5-percent proposal doesn’t mesh with an approximately $80 million system net asset gain for the 2011 fiscal year, especially as student tuition system-wide continues to increase and faculty positions dwindle.
In May, the board of trustees raised tuition 4.3 percent. According to numbers in a September AFUM message to faculty, the system has lost 80 full-time faculty members since 2007.
“They can certainly afford to freeze tuition and give faculty a fair contract,” Collom said. “Students are paying more and walking away with less.”
But Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor for finance and administration, said the $80 million gain isn’t what it seems.
“We really can’t support the kinds of increases folks are talking about,” she said.
Wyke said approximately $42 million of that total is either invested or restricted, meaning it couldn’t be moved to pay for salaries even if the system wanted to.
“These are difficult times, given the state of the economy, and we must keep education affordable for Maine students,” Pattenaude said in a statement. “At the same time, we deeply value our faculty and staff — they are the core of our universities.”
“For six months, we’ve been in the process of negotiating with our unions. As part of this process and in accordance with State law, we have requested mediation with two of the six unions to help us resolve the issues, however it’s our policy to not discuss these issues in public,” Pattenaude said in a statement.
And Wyke said much system money is at risk. The system won’t receive the same $7 million in annual federal stimulus money in the 2012 fiscal year that they received in the last two years. Last week, she said $2.4 million was cut by a state streamlining committee, with future state budget outlooks dim.
In an earlier statement, Wyke said the “vast majority of unrestricted net assets are one-time funds that have largely been committed to specific projects, operational and capital needs, and for scholarships.”
“In these uncertain economic times, it is not prudent to use these one-time funds for long-term commitments,” Wyke said in the statement.
Susan Feiner, a protesting USM professor of economics and women and gender studies, said the system could be manufacturing the look of tough budget times.
“I’m an economist, and I know you can make these numbers show what they want them to show,” she said.
Feiner confronted Pattenaude as he walked into the building for trustees meetings on the library’s seventh floor.
“This is the most transparent place I’ve ever worked at,” Pattenaude told her.
“That’s pathetic,” she answered.
Afterward, Pattenaude spoke briefly to reporters, saying protesters’ points “are, of course, legitimate” and the system is “trying hard to be fair.”
“We are not out of the difficult financial times,” Wyke said. “The pinch our employees are feeling is the same pinch families trying to send their children to college or the adult trying to go back to college are feeling.”
McClymer also said “issues of academic freedom” and disputes over the status of certain part-time faculty members have thrown wrenches into negotiations.
He said faculty emails are of particular concern, and he has heard cases in which administrators may have read course files they may not have been ethically privy to.
“The expectation is that emails will not be intercepted by the university and read,” McClymer said. “They have told us many, many times they don’t do that, and we’re just trying to make it clarified they won’t do that.”
McClymer also said the system and AFUM are at odds over the status of certain part-time faculty members who teach nearly full-time loads but receive less salary and benefits.
“They should be part of the AFUM bargaining unit,” he said. “They should be full-time employees with the expectation that their job continues.”
For the state AFUM chair, Ronald Mosley, also a professor of business and law at the University of Maine at Machias, the problem is one of understanding.
“There’s too many feet-on-the-desk administrators,” he said. “I think every administrator ought to teach.
“They forget why they’re there.”