Faculty and staff unions make headway in contract negotiations

Faculty+and+staff+unions+make+headway+in+contract+negotiations

By Abigail Lee, Magazine Content Managing Editor

On both coasts, unions at the college are making progress in their respective contract negotiations.

The Emerson Los Angeles part-time faculty union secured an agreement with the college Feb. 4—ending an eight-month bargaining process that required federal mediation. Emerson’s Staff Union is currently in the midst of its own negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

The new contract for ELAF-AAUP members is retroactive to July 2021 and expires in June 2026. The college said the negotiations “moved along well” and that they are “eager to continue to work with the union to come to a final agreement.”

“Emerson is committed to fair and equitable pay for all of our faculty and staff, whether represented by a union or not,” wrote college spokesperson Michelle Gaseau in an emailed statement to The Beacon.

The 29-member faculty union pushed for better salaries, healthcare eligibility, and contracts, highlighting a disparity between their treatment and that of Boston campus part-time faculty—including what they allege are discrepancies between length of contract and pay. 

Get This Week's News

All the big stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday morning 

“We are teaching the same students the same classes for the same degrees so there’s really no reason why we should be paid less for the same work,” said union president Jennifer Vandever. 

The logistical reason for the disparity is that Boston’s Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College ratified a new contract in 2019, which included higher salary benefits that this agreement seeks to match. Formed in 2015, ELAF-AAUP negotiated its first contract with Emerson in 2016.

But Vandever also added the college’s reasoning has been that ELA faculty is an affiliated model. Therefore, salaries are determined on the basis of what the college can afford according to the tuition-based program.

The union’s new contract includes the adoption of the “salary grid” used by Boston faculty. Per-course salary of newer, “level one” faculty—which is more than half of the members and most of the faculty of color—will increase 11 percent. Salary for senior faculty’s salaries will increase 10 percent. Those at the middle of the salary range, who had rates similar to Boston’s faculty, will also receive a raise.

“We’re looking out for faculty to be able to be treated equally as other faculty, and also looking at ways for the college to be inclusive,” said Mason Richards, vice president of ELAF-AAUP.

Los Angeles faculty will also receive more healthcare benefits. The current requirement that faculty members teach at least 48 hours before being eligible for coverage will be reduced to 24 hours—the same threshold as Boston’s faculty. 

Senior faculty with their own healthcare plans will see the college’s coverage increase from 50 percent to 65 percent, and will be able to extend their coverage to other individuals through the creation of a “Plus One” option. 

Additionally, the faculty union looked to ensure that the commitment of senior faculty to the college was reflected in their employment contracts. Currently, the satellite campus has fourteen senior faculty members—nine of which have taught for over 10 years, and five for over 20. Under the new contract, senior faculty will now see two-year contracts, replacing the one-year contracts they are currently granted.

“That’s a pretty extraordinary, deep bench in terms of the institutional memory that [senior] faculty bring to the table,” Vandever said. 

However, the union did not manage to win all of its requests, including two-semester appointments for junior faculty as well as “set minimums for labor outside the classroom,” such as mentoring students and participating in discussion panels. Instead, faculty may be compensated for non-teaching duties on a case-by-case basis.

ELAF was able to keep its 2-to-4 percent annual cost-of-living adjustments—an issue of contention during bargaining. The college’s initial salary proposal included reduced cost-of-living adjustments. 

“Given that we were already the lowest-paid faculty at the school and teaching through a pandemic, we found this really unacceptable,” Vandever said. “For us, it simply didn’t track with the school’s stated commitment to the values of social responsibility.”

The fight for a fair contract persists across Emerson’s campuses. In Boston, the Emerson Staff Union is in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. 

“We’ve got a lot of topics that we’re covering [and] that we’re hoping to either change or see improvements on, and we’re not quite seeing eye to eye with management,” said Dennis Levine, the Chapter Chair of the Emerson Staff Union. 

The staff union met with the college Feb. 8 to continue working toward a new agreement. The last one initially expired in September, but was extended to Feb. 15. Union members offered to extend the agreement a month further given the lack of developments. 

Boston staff are looking for improved salaries, parental leave, and sick days. Levine said the process has been moving slower than preferred, partly due to the fact that negotiations are taking place over Zoom. 

“I can tell you that what we are asking for, we feel, is not pie in the sky stuff,” he said. “We are asking for solid numbers [for benefits and compensation]…based on the cost of living in Boston.”

The college has not yet presented its first counter-proposal to the staff union’s “benefits and compensation” offer, which the members had been hoping to hear at Tuesday’s meeting. 

The changes to parental leave in the new CBA would involve altering the language to be more accessible. The staff union is also pushing for an evaluation of work-from-home guidelines. While the college has implemented guidelines for gauging when employees need to work in person, the decision is up to managers’ discretion.

Staff members said they may work three or four days in person when the same work could be done at home. Amid the pandemic, working in person continues to be a source of both stress and safety concerns.

“It’s the getting to campus, that’s the big issue. A lot of our people have to take public transit, they have to walk through the Common, they’ve got to be around people that are not part of the Emerson bubble,” said Levine.

The staff union is also pressing for diversity, equity, and inclusion language to be included in the CBA. The college’s response, Levine said, was that DEI language should be a school-wide implementation instead. 

“We feel that it’s important to have specific benchmarks that the school should be able to codify,” Levine said. “We feel it’s important for our members to be hired in such a way that we have fairness and equity and diversity in the staff union.” 

The college has acknowledged the prolonged bargaining process.  

“Emerson College respects the rights of our employees to bargain collectively, and values each of our staff members represented by SEIU Local 888,” wrote Gaseau. “We are committed to working in good faith with the union to reach a fair and equitable agreement, with bargaining sessions scheduled for the coming months.” 

For both the Emerson Staff Union and ELAF-AAUP, the efforts come down to strengthening the college’s commitment to equity. 

“We are adamant about making sure that the college is living up to the values that we tell the students,” said Richards. “It’s about social justice and equity.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that ELA faculty will not be compensated for non-teaching labor. According to the new CBA, compensation for non-teaching labor will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.