With four days left until their temporary contract expires, Barnard clerical workers believe that the college is trying to shortchange them in contract negotiations.
According to members of United Auto Workers Local 2110, which represents those employees, Barnard administrators have proposed freezing wages for three years, reducing retirement benefits, increasing employees’ pension contributions, decreasing health care coverage, and putting stricter limits on sick leave, flexible hours, and leaves of absences.
Approximately 175 members of Local 2110 work at Barnard, mostly as administrative assistants, academic assistants, or access attendants, who control entry into residence halls. Sharon Walls, a union officer who has worked at Barnard since 1984, called the proposed wage freeze “a slap in the face.”
“We’ve got members … who’ve worked here for 15 years. That shows dedication to the college,” said Walls, who works in Barnard’s Purchasing Department. “We help keep Barnard the way it is.”
The union’s contract officially expired on June 30, but a temporary extension is set to last until Monday, Sept. 24. Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110, said that while the union has been trying to negotiate a new contract since May, Barnard only recently started to negotiate seriously.
“When students and faculty are not around over the summer, they don’t feel any pressure to bargain at all,” Rosenstein said. “They did virtually nothing over the summer, even though we made ourselves available for bargaining.”
Members of Local 2110 at Columbia and Teachers College came close to striking in April over similar issues, although Barnard employees currently have no plans to strike. They can keep working as negotiations continue, and Barnard Chief Operating Officer Gregory Brown noted that the college’s last agreement with the union was reached 10 months after its contract expired.
“What we are working towards is a contract that is grounded and fair, both for the College and its employees, who are vital members of our campus community,” Brown said in an email. “Specifically, the College is seeking a contract that is updated to reflect present circumstances, and maintains consistency across different employee groups.”
Barnard has made several controversial cost-cutting moves over the last year, including charging full-time tuition to part-time students, announcing plans to close the college’s swimming pool, and implementing a voluntary retirement program for professors and administrators. The college ran an operating deficit of $2.5 million two years ago.
While administrators have offered clerical workers some concessions, including proposals to increase funding for child care and provide tax subsidies for same-sex couples, “they still haven’t taken the benefits cut off the table at all, and that’s the most serious thing,” Rosenstein said.
She added that salaries for Local 2110 employees at Barnard are lower than salaries for Local 2110 employees at Columbia and Teachers College.
“People don’t make a lot of money here,” Rosenstein said. “What makes Barnard a place people like to work at is this kind of … existing agreement that people here will work for less money because of the mission of the college and the benefit packages that exist.”
Pamela Phillips, a full-time administrative assistant at Barnard’s Center for Research on Women and a member of the union’s negotiating team, said that the proposed wage freeze is too severe.
“If we don’t get an increase in wages, that’ll add an extra burden to my already burdensome financial” situation, Phillips said.
Walls said that many of Barnard’s clerical workers are struggling to pay their rent, adding that she has a daughter enrolled at Lincoln University.
“I have to help her pay tuition, so it’s very difficult. And I’m not the only parent who has a child in college right now,” Walls said.
“We have to fight for these things,” she added. “There is a corporate mentality here. There’s nothing wrong with that, but do it in a humanistic way.”
Margaret Mattes contributed reporting.