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Midwest, union still at odds

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Almost two years have passed since Antioch University Midwest and its 13-member union staff began negotiating a new contract, which is yet to be reconciled. After dozens of meetings and mediation sessions, last month Midwest gave the union a deadline of Friday, May 24, to accept its best final offer.

According to representatives of United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 796, the university’s final offer is no different from the first, which is and always has been unacceptable because it delegitimizes the union by taking away the essential rights of the workers.

“Without the protections under our contract, there is no security, so we intend to fight it because we do think it’s bad faith bargaining,” said one union member who wished not to be named, due to fears of job loss. “I don’t think we’re winning any victories for humanity,” she said in reference to the well-known quote from Antioch’s founding president, Horace Mann.

Midwest President Ellen Hall did not wish to be interviewed, but she prepared a statement explaining that the university’s offer gives the school the flexibility it needs to shift job responsibilities and fill workplace needs as they arise. The university is not trying to shut down the union, Hall wrote, but they do intend to implement the proposal on Friday.

“We have negotiated in good faith during this time and have never considered taking any action that could be classified as ‘union busting.’ The members of Local 796 do a significant amount of important work for the University. The University is convinced that the proposal in question meets the needs of the University and is worthy of the Union’s acceptance.”

According to the UE, the three main points in Midwest’s final offer include asking union members to give up their right to bargain job descriptions and the boundaries of their work. Giving up those points could allow the university to change the workers’ duties and allow other people to do their work, potentially reducing the workers’ hours. The third concession would eliminate the university’s deadline to respond to UE grievances, thereby making internal grievances ineffectual.

According to UE attorney Dennis Painter, who has represented Antioch union workers for almost 30 years, these points essentially render the union powerless, meaning that it might as well not exist. And because the university has not proposed any other offers, the UE believes their leaders are bargaining in bad faith and plans to fight their offer with the National Labor Relations Board if the university implements it next week.

“In our industry it’s called constructive discharge, where an employer creates such egregious conditions that no one could work under them, … for instance where the worker no longer gets 40 hours and eventually has to quit,” he said. “Those pieces of the proposal are so ludicrous that no union worth their salt would agree.”

Last winter the university hired Cincinnati attorneys Denlinger, Rosenthal and Greenberg, whose website advertises “union avoidance” and “union breakdown,” to assist in-house attorneys with the negotiation process.

Though the university did not respond to the UE’s repeated requests for more information on the school’s budget, university trustees have been discussing significant budgetary shortfalls for Midwest for at least three years due to severely declining enrollment. While Midwest claimed a healthy enrollment of over 900 full-time students when it moved from Livermore Street to the Center for Business and Education in 2007, since then the numbers have dropped by half, according to staff members who wished not to be named. And according to board minutes, last year Midwest projected an operating deficit of $2 million for fiscal year 2013, with no campus reserves to fill the gap. Instead, the minutes imply that Antioch University has provided at least some of the funds to cover Midwest’s deficits.

UE members feel the university is attempting to solve its budgetary problems by getting rid of the union. But instead, several said, as both staff and faculty have been telling leaders for many years, the school needs to hire more staff to recruit, retain and serve the needs of the students needed to grow the university.

“We have phenomenal faculty, we have phenomenal students, and we have so much potential … but the bottom line is we don’t have students because there are no recruiters and no one to even return phone calls,” one member said. “And they seem to be taking it out on us.”

For its part, the UE has not asked for any pay increases or any other changes to its contract, but does ask to retain the right to exist, Painter said. The UE has represented maintenance, production, clerical and semi-professional workers at Antioch since 1967, when the university was part of Antioch College, Painter said. Most of that period has been smooth, with minor disagreements, but never a two-year delay without resolution, he said. The tactics the university is using appear to be an attempt to “bust the union at Antioch Midwest,” Painter wrote in a letter he sent to Hall last week.

Others have gathered their own evidence and are encouraging the university to work with the union in a more constructive manner. Three-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Julia Reichert, who co-directed the film Union Maids, gave the keynote address at the Midwest commencement ceremony at the Schuster Center on Sunday. She lauded the workers that have served the college and the university for many decades, and voiced concern about the university’s recent tactics.

“It seems the University is trying to get rid of this union, and negotiations have hit real troubles. I’m sorry to have to say this. But I’m an Antiochian. I have a responsibility to speak out,” she said to an audience of students, parents and community members, with the university staff sitting in their academic robes behind her. “Taking away the rights of this small union is not a victory for humanity. We all rise and fall together, and I urge us all to listen to these folks, who are part of our community. Hear their side. I urge the university to support their desire for security, and do it in good faith.”

Painter echoed those thoughts this week, saying that, mired in the struggle to agree on a contract, the larger picture gets missed, which is that the union workers and the university are on the same team.

“Here’s the reality: The people there are part of our union, but they work for Antioch,” he said. “We’re all working for the same thing. Going to work every day thinking our members are the enemy makes no sense.”

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