St. Michael’s College and its custodians have signed the first union contract in the school’s 110-year history.
The agreement was announced on Wednesday in an email message from Michael New, St. Michael’s vice president for human resources. He called the contract between the Catholic college and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) “mutually beneficial.”
New didn’t have much to add to that statement in a telephone interview on Thursday, saying only that the deal represented “a learning experience.” Asked what he had learned, New said, “That it’s important for all administrators or managers to listen to their employees.”
Custodian and union activist Graham Lebel laid out the provisions of the contract that runs through October 31, 2016, and that was ratified earlier this week by a vote of 27-2.
Lebel said the 37 St. Michael’s workers included in the bargaining unit have won hourly wage increases of 1 percent immediately, another 1 percent on July 1, and 2 percent at the start of 2016. He estimated that the hikes will lift a custodian’s starting pay of $11.50 an hour by about 60 cents over the life of the contract.
The custodians also won establishment of a formal procedure for firings. Previously, Lebel said, the college could “arbitrarily” terminate workers. The contract specifies that supervisors must give a unionized employee a verbal warning to be followed, if necessary, by a written warning. And if a custodian is fired, she or he will henceforth be able to appeal that action in an arbitration proceeding.
The union failed to get the college to agree to a “longevity pay” increase based on years of service, Lebel added. But it did gain a perk that “outsiders may view as minor but many of us think is significant,” Lebel said. Custodians had not been permitted to wear shorts on the job as long as students were on campus, but the contract gives them that option, he related.
“We’re satisfied with this as a first contract,” Lebel said, “but ideally we’d like to get everybody up to a livable wage,” which, he suggested, might be $13 or more per hour. The union will aim for that in the next round of negotiations, Lebel said.
St. Michael’s political science professor Bill Grover, an outspoken supporter of the custodians’ union, said in an interview on Thursday that “the most difficult thing in forming a union is not getting a solid pro-union vote but it’s getting that first contract.” Grover added that he is “really thrilled” by the agreement.
It wasn’t easy for the St. Mike’s custodians to organize a union local. They voted by an 18-17 margin in 2012 to affiliate with AFSCME.
Negotiations did not always proceed smoothly. Some union members claimed that the college’s firing of two custodians had been prompted by their organizing activities. The school denied that was the case.
The 27-2 vote in support of the contract suggests that the union may have gained acceptance among at least some of its in-house opponents. To Lebel, the moral of the story is clear: “There’s no way we could have gotten any of this without the union.”
Disclosure: Kevin J. Kelley teaches journalism at St. Michael's as an adjunct professor.