October 2, 2004 in City

Union protests, tosses out WSU contract vote

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Claiming that university management interfered, the Washington Federation of State Employees has thrown out this week’s vote on a labor contract with Washington State University.

The union is also filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the university with the State Public Employment Relations Commission.

The two-year contract, which would cover about 1,250 hourly workers at WSU, ran aground Wednesday with 401 votes in favor, 426 against, and 23 votes that union officials say were questionable. Now the union says there were meetings with supervisors and inappropriate management contact prior to the vote that may have influenced how workers cast their ballots.

University officials deny any wrongdoing with respect to the vote, noting that the union has not directly complained to WSU about management interference.

Slated to take effect in July 2005, the contract was tentatively approved by university and union negotiators late Monday night. It had a deadline of Friday to be ratified, approved by WSU’s Board of Regents and submitted to the state finance office.

On Tuesday, both the school and the union publicized the contract details, which included stabilizing the employees’ share of health care costs and provided a 3.2 percent wage increase and a 2 percent lump sum to be awarded in 2006. One of the most debated issues was the union-sponsored clause that each member of the bargaining unit must pay monthly union dues of up to $53.

Employees in Pullman, Spokane and in extension offices and branch campuses around the state voted throughout the day Wednesday. By Wednesday night, the union started compiling reported problems, said Tim Welch, WFSE spokesman.

Among the complaints was that university management held mandatory meetings about the contract, said Welch. The union also heard reports that managers drove employees, including some who didn’t want to vote, to the polling places, he said. And more than 20 people signed in to vote, but never cast ballots, which may indicate that they came to satisfy their supervisors, he said. “They might have left the impression that you have to vote a certain way to please a certain manager and protect your job,” said Welch.

Those things add up to unfair labor practice, he said.

In a statement to the press Friday afternoon, WSU Associate Vice President for Administration and Human Resources Richard Heath said the university denies any wrongdoing and finds the accusations perplexing, especially after the school’s efforts toward good-faith negotiations. He invited the union to communicate directly with WSU to resolve any concerns.

WSU hasn’t officially heard from the union since the vote was announced, said Steve DeSoer, director of WSU’s Human Resource Services.

Both sides worked hard on the contract and neither wanted to see it fail, he said. Of the state schools that bargained with WFSE, “we were the first to start negotiating (nine months ago) and the last to finish,” said DeSoer. “We think we got a good contract.”

With just one day between reaching their tentative agreement and putting it up for an employee vote, the university and the union worked hard to share the details with the workers, he said. The school also scheduled a special meeting of the WSU Board of Regents for their required vote of approval prior to delivering the contract to state finance offices. “Why would we do that if we wanted it voted down,” said DeSoer.

He said he hadn’t heard complaints about management involvement, but that he had heard complaints about the union election process. But that was controlled by the WFSE and school officials had no influence, he said

Eastern Washington University employees who voted on a similar WFSE contract managed to ratify theirs with 91.6 percent of the workers who voted supporting the agreement. The EWU board of trustees ratified the contract early Friday, in time for the deadline to be delivered to the State Office of Financial Management and be included in the coming state budgets.

The WSU contract has missed the Friday deadline, but university officials have sent in a copy of the tentative agreement and the WFSE has asked that the deadline be pushed back until another vote can be scheduled.


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