PLAINFIELD — Unionized faculty at Goddard College have overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer that was the product of a recent round of mediation. However, fears that the financially troubled school’s administration might react by moving swiftly to declare an impasse and impose a contract appear to be unfounded.
Instead, acting President Avram Patt, chairman of the college’s board of trustees, sought over the weekend to quell concern about the administration’s plans by reaching out to the faculty, which had been warned by union representatives to brace for a heavy-handed response.
Faculty members rejected the contract offer Friday in a 73-8 vote that featured more than 80 percent participation. The union’s bargaining team had made no recommendation for or against it.
According to the union’s news release announcing the decision, “The result came despite signals that, in the event of a rejection, the administration might declare a bargaining impasse and unilaterally impose steep cuts to pay and benefits.”
Contacted at home over the weekend, Patt said that simply wasn’t the case.
“I never said that,” he said. “It was never our intention to (declare an impasse).”
According to Patt, it still isn’t. “I think the next step is to sit down with the union representatives and say: ‘Where do we go from here?’” he said.
That was the thrust of an email Patt sent to all Goddard faculty Saturday morning and forwarded to The Times Argus at its request.
“While we had hoped that a favorable vote would help ease financial pressures that Goddard is facing, we will continue negotiating with faculty union representatives to achieve a collective bargaining agreement,” Patt wrote in the email.
“I know some have feared that if the vote was ‘no,’ the administration would declare impasse and impose contract conditions,” he added. “This was not our stated intent and it is not what we are in fact doing.”
During a brief telephone interview, Patt said the two sides can either resume face-to-face negotiations, which began more than a year ago, or once again enlist the assistance of a federal mediator in hopes of reaching an agreement that would replace the contract that expired June 30.
Although Goddard’s fiscal stability remains a concern — the college is facing a projected $1.5 million deficit over the next two years if financial changes aren’t made and economic and enrollment trends continue — Patt said trustees are content to let the collective bargaining process play out.
“There is no ‘line in the sand’ time frame at this point,” he said.
Contacted Sunday, Jan Clausen, head of the faculty’s bargaining team, welcomed Patt’s offer to resume negotiations.
“Going back to the bargaining table is exactly where we want to go,” she said, suggesting the union’s emphatic rejection of the board’s offer left little doubt about what members thought of the proposal.
“The faculty has spoken,” she said. “The proposal that was before us is not going to fly.”
According to undisputed published reports, the rejected four-month agreement would have implemented a 4 percent pay cut for faculty, which would have remained in force after its June 30 expiration and until a new contract was agreed to.
Among other things, the proposal also called for the suspension of the “retirement match” until June 30 and what was characterized as a “significant diminishment in faculty severance benefits.” The proposal would have provided a single payment of $15,000 to any fully salaried faculty member who was laid off and $7,500 to any other faculty member who was laid off.
Union representatives have said that is roughly 50 percent of the current benefit — one they claim Goddard’s administration sought to eliminate at the start of negotiations.
From the union’s perspective, Clausen said, a significant reduction to the severance benefit is a nonstarter at a college with many long-serving faculty members.
Severance “is really a justice issue for us,” she said, suggesting it represented something of a safety net for faculty members who have taught for years and, in many cases, decades at Goddard.
“If they find themselves in the bad situation of not having that job anymore they need something to tide them over,” she said.
While openly critical of the administration’s latest contract offer, Clausen declined to discuss the specifics of the union’s proposal, though she did speak in general terms about its bargaining position.
“Our position has been that we’re willing to make short-term sacrifices that we understand, based on the financial information we’ve gotten, … are needed to help the college move forward and get over this hump,” she said. “What we’re not willing to do is entertain a restructuring of severance, or other provisions that seem like they might be targeted at radically restructuring or even possibly abolishing the college as we know it.”
Clausen said she looked forward to discussing the specifics of the proposal with the administration team when negotiations resume. No date has been set for that session.
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