Senate vote bolsters faculty union

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(Host) The Vermont Senate has voted to give state college faculty another chance to win back early retirement benefits. The Senate also decided to take the Legislature out of future labor disputes involving the state college system.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Senate vote was a victory for the faculty union. The teachers were upset by a labor board decision in February that phases out their early retirement benefits. The Senate wants to order another round of negotiation, and then have both sides submit to binding arbitration. That means the faculty has a chance of winning back the retirement program.

But Senator Vince Illuzzi, a Republican from Essex and Orleans Counties, said it’s by no means guaranteed that the union will win.

(Illuzzi) “Is this a slam dunk for the faculty? The answer is absolutely not. Section B of the amendment simply says we’re going to carve out the retirement piece and direct the parties to renegotiate.”

(Dillon) But Illuzzi and other senators say it’s fundamentally unfair to take away retirement benefits that were promised years ago as a way to compensate for low salaries.

Senate President Peter Welch, a Windsor County democrat, recalled that in the early 1990’s he represented retired machine tool workers whose health benefits were suddenly eliminated.

Retirement programs, Welch said, are under assault throughout the country. In the case of the machine tool workers, federal judge Fred Parker ordered the benefits restored.

(Welch) “I think he did the right thing. I think we would be doing the right thing to allow the parties that last opportunity before a fair and impartial arbitrator to resolve this question of what happens to these retirement benefit.”

(Dillon) But some senators felt it was simply wrong for lawmakers to get involved in a labor dispute. Senator Hull Maynard is a Republican from Rutland County.

(Maynard) “I think we’re here today to decide whether the Legislature is the proper forum for this matter, Mr. President. I don’t want to tie ourselves to any precedent in the past. I want to worry about setting a new precedent for the future.”

(Dillon) The amendment to send the retirement issue to binding arbitration passed 17-10.

But the senators made clear that they don’t want to wade into similar fights in the future. They voted unanimously to remove their authority over the contracts, so the Legislature would no longer be the court of last resort for state college labor issues. Both amendments now go to the House for its consideration.

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

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