A battle is brewing at the University of Vermont between administrators and unionized maintenance workers who say they're "pissed off" about the golden parachutes and salaries handed out to former President Dan Fogel and other university leaders.
At a rally outside the Waterman administration building Wednesday, the head of UVM's maintenance union told 100 supporters that, "The people in this community are pissed off too."
"The trustees have become morally bankrupt," said Carmyn Stanko, an electrician and president of United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 267. "Giving out millions of dollars to Fogel and their friends while sticking it to the workers."
With talks stalled on a new three-year labor contract, some at the rally threatened that UVM students, faculty and staff would "take over" the Waterman building if they didn't get a fair contract, meaning stage a sit-in. The sides were scheduled to meet with a federal mediator today in hopes of breaking the impasse.
UVM is asking its lowest-paid workers to contribute more toward health insurance premiums and accept a salary increase that works out to 1 percent stretched over three years. Meanwhile, union leaders expressed outrage at the $600,000 and $500,000 severance packages afforded to Fogel and another top university official, and the combined $500,000 salaries paid the new dean of the business school and his professor wife.
"Is that the kind of university we want?" Stanko asked the crowd.
"Hell, no!" was the immediate response.
Philip Baruth, a UVM English professor and state senator representing Chittenden County, told the crowd that if UVM administration didn't offer a fair labor contract, "This building will be taken over. And, that's a promise." Baruth said he was ashamed of the university for its attempts to squeeze the workers at the bottom of the pay scale while rewarding those at the top.
"There is a deliberate attempt to increase the gap between the highest paid workers and the lowest paid workers," said Baruth. "That's what is wrong with America and that's what is now happening here."
Baruth then got the crowd chanting, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" for a couple of minutes — a chant used by union workers and their allies in Wisconsin earlier this year against Gov. Scott Walker. Baruth suggested that people continue to chant "Shame!" whenever they pass Waterman or a UVM administrator.
That might be a bit awkward for Fogel, who is still on campus with an office in the Old Mill Building. He is planning to return to teaching in 2013. UVM recently paid about $5200 to renovate the office for the former president.
Stanko ticked off the recent six-figure golden parachutes handed to Fogel and Michael Schultz, a top administrator who had been involved in a relationship with Fogel's wife, as examples of how out of touch the university was with average Vermonters.
Fogel resigned earlier this month just weeks before the release of an internal investigation into his wife's activities. The report concluded that Fogel and his wife, Rachel Kahn-Fogel, contributed to low morale among UVM's development and fundraising staff as a result of personnel decisions but did not violate any state laws or UVM rules. Former UVM Provost John Bramley has since replaced Fogel as interim president.
The contract offered by UVM would also overhaul retiree health care benefits. If workers don't take early retirement by July 1 of next year (which means being at least 55 with at least 25 years of service in most cases), then they'll see their retirement benefits skyrocket. Under current rules, retirees pay the same amount toward health insurance premiums as employees. Depending on a person's salary, that can be anywhere from 3 to 8 percent of an employee's paycheck.
For Joe Stout, an electrician and member of the UE Local 267 contract bargaining team, the change means his health insurance premiums would jump from $190 a month to cover his entire family, to $800 a month just to cover himself and his wife.
"That means I'll be working here until I'm 65 or 67, rather than 55 as I had planned — as many of us had planned," said Stout. Stout and Stanko said the physically demanding jobs of the maintenance crews make it hard for people to keep working until 67.
Stanko (pictured, second from left) also urged people to vote out of office next year the legislative trustees who approved Fogel's severance package while pushing for more sacrifice from the lower-paid workers.
Stout told the crowd that five years ago there were 130 people at UVM who earned $100,000 or more. Today, that figure is 360. Meanwhile, more than 1600 workers earn less than $45,000.
"They shouldn't be taking the money out of our pockets," said Stout to rousing cheers. "They should be taking it out of their pockets."
Stout and others pointed out after the rally that while students, professors and administrators didn't show up on Monday at UVM because classes were cancelled, UE worker had to show up in order to keep the buildings running.
In response to the rally, a top UVM official said he understands the union's concerns but said the administration is looking out for the long-term stability of the university.
"As we worked to develop a balanced FY 12 budget proposal for the board of trustees this spring, we were confronted once again with the need to significantly increase financial aid, in this case by $11 million (14.8 percent)," said Richard Cate, UVM's vice president for finance and administration. "Meanwhile the total general fund expense budget increase was less than 1 percent,"
In order to balance its budget, Cate said UVM relied primarily on three strategies: a $3 million reduction in departmental operating budgets; a 0 percent salary increase for all faculty and staff; and a 5.8 percent increase in tuition.
"The administration understands the concerns raised by UE members but the financial stability of the university is in their best interests as well as the institution generally," said Cate. "We are hopeful that the bargaining process will ultimately result in a contract that fairly balances the needs of staff with the financial realities confronting the university."