One Contract Down, One More To Go
With the ratification of our 2007-2009 contract, bargaining for the 2009-2011 contract is already upon us. This new contract to be bargained will not only set wages, benefits, standards for workplace treatment and a host of issues, it will also determine the base from which we build for the near- and long-term. Contracts build upon one another as gains are made in increments. The better one contract is, the better the next one will be. So each contract we negotiate has an appreciable impact on your entire graduate career at the university.
We Bargain With the State and the University
As a public employee union of workers at the University of Wisconsin, we bargain our contracts with both the State of Wisconsin and the University. From the state, the Office of State Employee Relations sits at the table; the University of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin System send people to the table as well. We bargain with everyone all at once. Sometimes the UW aligns with us. Sometimes OSER does. Sometimes neither do. It is all part of our contract bargaining reality.
Union Leaders Working Hard
Union leaders, especially our Bargaining Team, have been working hard to prepare for this round of collective bargaining. We started in the spring last year, before our 2007-2009 contract was even ratified, to solicit input on bargaining planks. Then, we conducted an online vote on priorities and preferences. Following that, we had an interactive session at a General Membership meeting to hash out bargaining planks and their priority. Since then, the Bargaining Team has been putting them together in a bargaining platform and conducting research to back up our proposals. In addition, our Bargaining Team has held informal meetings with OSER, UW and the UW System to lay some groundwork for negotiations.
This Monday, some representatives from our Bargaining Team, our Co-Presidents, and our union’s staff will meet with the Chancellor of the University. The conversation will be about shared priorities in the contract, where we agree on issues and to what degree, and how we can actualize our priorities in a contract. It is not usual for us to have such a high-level meeting with leaders from the union and the university sitting down for this kind of a conversation. But it is a very productive development and something we will work to take advantage of.
Sometimes We Align, Sometimes We Don’t
In collective bargaining with the State and the University, sometimes the interests and goals of the union and our membership align with theirs, and sometimes they do not. It is all part of the complexity of our negotiating process. For example, the University should have a vested interest in higher graduate student worker wages and take-home pay so as to make the UW as competitive as possible in attracting grads and retaining faculty. But, the University has to pay for this somehow, and potentially increasing our wages means making a determination about priorities. For another example, the State should have a vested interest in a happy and productive workforce that continues to make our public institutions work well. But, the State has to determine what they will agree to in order to make that possible.
When Interests Align, Sometimes We Still Need to Convince Them
As noted above, even when interests align, sometimes we need to convince the State and the University. For example, tuition remission and health insurance coverage. Can you imagine attending grad school without these? Well, the union had to work incredibly hard over years to make these things happen, winning them even after many objections. The UW could not compete with other schools for top quality grads without these provisions in our contract, but we had to win them even against opposition. We cannot ever take for granted that just because something, like increasing grad student worker wages or remitting segregated fees, is a good idea for both us and them, that they will take action on our proposals.
As much as anything, our meeting with the Chancellor is about finding where our interests align and where we agree on that. It is also about beginning to convince them how our interests are their interests too, because that is not always readily apparent to even the wise minds on the other side of the bargaining table from us.
Good Contracts Do Not Happen (Just) At the Bargaining Table
Winning a good contract and convincing the other side to align with our interests does not happen solely at the bargaining table. We need to build power around our ideas, be they power of great argument (e.g. good research and language) or the power of organized people, to win. That is why our union is working to organize people in our union, and why we need you to get involved. You can be involved by joining the Bargaining Team or the Contract Enforcement Committee. You can be involved by becoming a union steward to organize fellow grad student workers. You can be involved by doing more than one too! But we need you to be involved to win a good contract through good organizing to build power around our ideas and interests.