The contracts of the members of the Local 1199 SEIU and SEIU Local 200 United, comprised of over 1,400 service workers employed on the River Campus and at the UR Medical Center, expire on Sept. 29. Negotiations over new contract terms began Aug. 8 and are still continuing without resolve.
“There was a brief strike at UR in 1975 to form the union when the University refused to enable a contract,” 1199 SEIU Vice President Bruce Popper said. “There has not been a work stoppage on the campus ever since. We’ve gotten close a couple of times; we’ve stayed up all night a couple of times to try to work things out.”
Popper also noted that, two years ago, employees worked without a contract for six months until a compromise was reached.
“We, unfortunately, agreed to a contract a couple of years ago that has new employees starting out at a lower and slower scale,” he said. “The employees eventually catch up, but way out.”
Associate Vice President of Human Resources Charles Murphy, one of the University’s representatives in the negotiations, was unable to be reached for comment as of press time.
The union originated in the URMC during the 1970s.
“The basic reason for the union is worker’s rights,” Popper said.
Members of the union include patient care technicians, nursing unit secretaries, surgical assistants, environmental and facilities maintenance employees and dietary, transportation and materials processing staff.
In the negotiations, union members are looking for eight main things. They are requesting to sign a three-year contract; to maintain their health benefits; to earn fair wage increases; to end the lower wages for newer employees; to increase training and educational opportunities; to create a child care fund; to improve dental care and to respect the right of other UR workers to join the union.
“For me, as a union employee of the University, what’s most important is health care,” Dining Services employee Dawn Marshall-Hosier said. “I have a family, I am married and we depend on health care to keep our children and myself healthy.”
For the first time in many years of contract negotiations, the union is not looking to increase health care, only to keep it as it currently stands. Presently, workers must pay a co-pay, but there is not a payroll deduction for the premium.The University is looking into this type of plan.
“I think it would be like $400 a month for family coverage; that means I would have to get at least a $7 raise to make the money I take home and pay for family coverage,” Marshall-Hosier said.
Two years ago, the union was put in charge of managing most of its health care system. In doing so, workers accepted higher out-of-pocket expenses and agreed to a mail-order prescription service in order to cut costs. As a result, there was a $2.6 million surplus, which allowed for the union members to ask for the same health care benefits.
“We’ve told them that as long as the workers get a modest wage increase each year… we don’t need any more money than the rate of the wage increase [to cover our healthcare expenses],” Popper said.
Although contract negotiations have always been for two-year contracts in the past due to health care cost calculations, the surplus provides for enough money in the budget to ask for a three-year contract instead.
On the whole, the union members are pleased with what the University offers its employees. There are employee training programs that allow for employees to earn GEDs, receive computer training and earn higher education degrees such as a Licensed Practical Nurse degree.
“It’s not just health care, it’s training and upgrading, it’s tuition benefits for children, it’s just so vast. I’ve been here 13 years, and I could see myself being here for the next 13 years,” Marshall-Hosier said. “[However,] if health insurance is taken away, I will really have to consider whether I stay here or move on.”
There will be contract negotiations every day next week. Present at the meetings are committees from both sides of the negotiations, speakers on the various benefits requested and a mediator sent in from the federal government.
Philbrick is a member of the class of 2009.