College labor dispute headed for a showdown

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(Host) A bitter labor dispute at the Vermont State Colleges appears headed for a legislative showdown. The issue may come up Wednesday as the Senate heads toward a final vote on the 2006 appropriations bill.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) State law gives the Legislature authority to change the state college labor contract. This power is rarely used, but a fight between unionized faculty and the college administration is now playing out in the Statehouse.

At issue are early retirement benefits for fulltime faculty. In February, the state labor relations board approved the administration’s final offer, which phases out the retirement program.

Senator, Vince Illuzzi, a Republican from Essex and Orleans Counties, says the faculty were promised the early retirement benefits as a way to make up for low salaries.

(Illuzzi) “Now what we’re saying to those people is: ‘Okay, we got you to stay. We got you to work here. Now we’re going to take away that big incentive that we used to bring you here.’ I’m not sure that’s fair.”

(Dillon) Illuzzi is pushing an amendment that would send the retirement issue to binding arbitration. That would give the faculty another chance to restore the benefits.

The state college administration says the issue is settled, and that the Legislature should not intervene. Mary Alice McKenzie is general counsel for the state college system.

(McKenzie) “We’re just talking with legislators about the integrity of the collective bargaining. And we’re hoping that there’s enough respect for the process that the Legislature will decide they don’t want to rewrite a labor contract on the floor of the Senate.”

(Dillon) The college administration and the faculty union have deployed teams of lobbyists to work the issue. College faculty – joined by state labor leaders – are also roaming the halls of the statehouse.

Richard Moye, who teaches literature at Lyndon State College, says he joined the faculty fourteen years ago with the expectation that he’d be eligible for early retirement benefits. He says the benefits should be maintained so the college can continue to attract qualified professors.

(Moye) “I think, however, the problem immediately, is an issue of integrity – that if the Vermont State Colleges fails to honor a promise that they made to me, for example, that I can’t really have faith in their integrity. If I can’t have faith in their integrity, I really find it more difficult to do the job that I do.”

(Dillon) But Representative George Cross, a Winooski Democrat and state college trustee has a much different view. He says employment benefits are added — and taken away – all the time during labor negotiations.

(Cross) “Collective bargaining is collective bargaining. It’s a give and take process. Every year, basically everything is up for grabs all over again. And that’s how the process works.”

(Dillon) Cross warns that the colleges have just two main sources of revenues: state appropriations, and student tuition. He says one or both of those will have to be raised if the early retirement benefits are restored.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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