‘Brutal’ negotiation leads to COLA for staff union

By Adri Pray, Content Managing Editor

Emerson’s staff union ratified their next collective bargaining agreement in a 119-1 vote on Wednesday. The agreement grants a cost-of-living adjustment and retroactive raises, along with  diversity, equity, and inclusion measures. 

The union’s second-ever contract—forged after more than 35 negotiation sessions spanning 15 months—built upon its first contract, as the union tweaked it to combat “workplace weaknesses” experienced during the pandemic. 

Staff members outside of the bargaining committee were exceptionally pleased with how many benefits they won, according to bargaining committee member and Administrative Associate Chair of Communication Sciences and Disorders Estelle Ticktin, who helped present the agreement at a town hall.

“There was only about half our membership [at the town hall] so our task in the next week—we’re holding more lunchtime meetings—is to reach all the people who did not show up yet and hear about everything the contract will be giving us,” she said. “That’s where we need to work next week, so we do have that more than 50% [approval].”

The key benefit in the contract, according to union bargaining committee member and Network Infrastructure Administrator Steve Bohrer, is the cost-of-living adjustment, which the union fought for during the negotiation. Bohrer believes inflation was a driving factor for the union’s recent win as the Consumer Price Index increased 8.1% in the last year.

“We came up with a few different versions of asking for COLA,” he said. “The final one was the language taken verbatim from the faculty contract and still [the college] fought us hard on that.”

The union also tried to parity the full-time faculty’s compensation clause from their contract, which includes additional raises to base salary. The college didn’t agree, instead offering smaller bonuses, which the union accepted. 

Though previously suspended indefinitely due to being in negotiation, retroactive raises were granted to union members and experience requirements will decrease from six months to two months. 

The college agreed to a sick bank with expanded eligibility for employees to receive paid time off. The union also altered how Human Resources review staff jobs to hold the department accountable. Now, when a staff member appeals to HR, the department must provide written rationale to that employee and the union regardless of whether the proposal is accepted or rejected.

“That will help us combat bias,” said Illona Yukhayev, union bargaining committee member and instructional technologist. “If you said ‘yes’ to this person and ‘no’ to this person, let’s compare them, let’s see where they were different, where they were similar.”

To ease department understaffing, the union pushed for a staffing committee composed of half staff and half management that will annually audit each department and report its findings. The union hopes publishing these results will continue to push DEI measures. However, if the union finds the college is not receptive to the committee’s findings, it can take action—anything short of a strike.

Additionally, if a staff member takes on extra responsibilities in the wake of an employee leaving, they can appeal to the college after 60 days of accepting responsibility to receive more compensation or have those tasks removed.

“Management can say no, because it’s [at] their discretion. The language isn’t as strong as we wish it was,” Yukhayev said. “I think having a process in place allows us to push against management if they don’t give people more money or less work when things like that happen.”

The contract removes limitations on when teaching staff can teach and will pay them separately for classroom sessions starting at the same salary as a step one affiliated faculty member if they teach a four-credit class. For example, staff members within the Performing Arts department who make costumes and teach costume making will be paid separately for their time inside and outside of the classroom.

The college also committed to improving internal equity language which the union hopes to use as a tool to monitor and enforce compensation standards for new hires. However, the college rejected proposed DEI measures the union felt would improve diversity at the college, specifically regarding job posting requirements.

“You don’t need a Master’s, you don’t even need a Bachelor’s for some jobs, but [Emerson] requires it, and that’s some gatekeeping,” Yukhayev said. “There were things we didn’t get, but we did get things like commitment from the college for training on issues of DEI for the staff.”

Out-of-state staff members who choose to work in Boston previously did not receive the same state benefits and protections as staff within Massachusetts. Specifically, the union raised the concern that the Supreme Court might redefine what a family is and who is eligible for leave as a family. The college agreed to give out-of-state staff equal recognition in offered benefits even if their state or federal law does not recognize their family.

During the 15-month negotiation, the union utilized multiple social media platforms to ask alumni and students for support to gain traction for their initiatives. Many were more than willing to aid the union.

“I have so many thank-you emails to write because we could not have done it without the support of so many alumni and students and faculty who stood by us,” Yukhayev said. “There are just no words to describe how much of a difference that has made.”