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In faculty contract fight months of negotiations fail to end stalemate over pay and benefits

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Students have seen signs posted on faculty office doors and in windows saying, “No Contract, but Still Working” but what do they mean?

The full time faculty members, of which there are approximately 100, work based on a contract that lays out annual wages and salary increases, and clarifies how many classes are to be taught, how many supervisory evaluations given, number of office hours, amount of benefits and other job requirements. A key sticking factor is that without a new contract, faculty do not receive any increase in pay.

The most recent faculty contract expired over a year ago and faculty union officers and college administrators have been deadlocked in negotiations.

Professor of Communication and the President of the faculty union, Alvyn Haywood, says, “We expect that the institution will take care of us as we take care of those who we work with.”

After months of stalled negotiations, Professor of English Edward Carmien, who is the current lead negotiator, says the full-time faculty and administration have moved into a “fact finding” stage.

Professor Carmien says, “In fact finding both sides will have the opportunity to share what they see are the facts of the matter at hand.” The facts in question have to do with college finances and whether or how much pay can be increased based on availability of funds.

According to Professor Carmien, negotiations began in March of 2016. An agreement was not made at that time and the faculty association declared impasse, a legal position meaning no progress is possible. This lead to a mediation meeting in September 2016 to try to resolve the conflict. The meeting did not produce a contract, and the mediator recommended both parties go to the “fact finding” stage.

Currently the full time professors have not had a raise in 2 years. According to union members, as cost of living goes up the expectation is that salaries should go up as well.

A bitter contract negotiation in 2013, which was covered in detail in The VOICE, found that the central disagreement was over a 1.5 percent raise in salary. At that point some community colleges in NJ were getting as much as a 2-2.5 percent raise.

Art Schwartz, Professor of Mathematics and the previous lead negotiator told The VOICE why these seemingly incremental raises matter saying, “For example, if I get a two percent raise and you get a one percent raise, you’d said ‘Oh, what the hell, it’s only one percent.’ No, I’m getting twice as much as you. And that will make a difference in 10-15 years.”

Dr. Jianping Wang, President of MCCC, says that the college simply does not have the proper funds to give professors such a raise. State funding, which is supposed to pay for one-third of community college fees, actually only accounts for less than 10 percent. Students currently pay over 50 percent of all community college fees. That is why tuition prices are rising each year.

Dr. Wang told The VOICE, “I believe we have incredibly hard working faculty, dedicated faculty…and they really deserve to get a raise. I want to give them a raise. But the truth is, as the president of the college, you cannot do things just because you want to, you have to do things that are responsible and that sustain the college. So if you choose just to settle the contract, don’t care how you’re gonna pay for it, then it will do the damage to the future of this college”

During the current negotiation period Dr. Wang has noted that the college has a $500,000 surplus. She has proposed a “success sharing” option as a means to increase faculty pay. Under such a plan, faculty would get bonuses if more of their student completed and passed their classes.

One faculty member who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of job reprisals said, “The idea of ‘success sharing’ is unethical. It puts pressure on faculty to lower standards so they can make more students pass. It also pits faculty against one another based on those who won’t inflate grades and those who will.”

The same professor continued, “I think the president’s argument would be that the team benefits from overall increased graduation and retention rates so there is no pressure, but the team doesn’t assign grades, individual professors do. Even if they try to ignore the pressure, in the back of their minds they know the more students they push along, the more money they might get. From the student’s perspective that means you can’t count on your diploma to reflect real learning or mean anything.”

A similarly contentious contract fight occurred in 1986. The college administration did not want to give faculty a raise, but it was shown that the college could afford it. Eventually, professors went on strike for three days. Classes were canceled and the school activities came to a halt. With contract negotiations now lasting longer than it did in 1986, is there a risk that the faculty will go on strike again?

Professor Schwartz says, at this point “I don’t think the faculty would support a strike.”

However faculty have indicated that they may hold a vote of no confidence in the president’s leadership. While such an action does not have any direct impact, it would signal to the college’s board of trustees that protests or even another strike might be the next step.

In a survey of 30 students conducted by The VOICE, 63 percent said they believed that professors not having a contract affects students, but on a scale of one to ten, half of those students rated how much they would be affected at the mid point, a five.

Although there is a low likelihood that the faculty will go on strike, this does affect students in other ways. Contracts require professors teach a minimum of 5 classes a semester, but many professors teach 6 or 7 classes to make more money.

English Professor Jack Tabor says, “What that means for you guys is that we are more tired. We would love to get your papers back faster, but because we are sort of having to run at 125 percent because we have to do this extra amount of work just to literally makes ends meat, it does wear us out. We’re less patient. We have less energy to come up with new things to teach.”

Dr. Diane Campbell, Executive Dean of Student Affairs says, “If you are doing what you came here to do, the signs in the windows should raise a flag in your intellect for you to question what is going on. And if you talk to a faculty member about what that sign means, hopefully as you leave Mercer and go into the workforce, you will understand what that means a lot better in terms of ‘still working’. We don’t have a contract, but we’re still working.”

Although this process has already been over a year long, professors agree that it will continue to be a long and drawn out process like it has been in the past. The “No Contract, but Still Working” signs are not new. They have been used several times in the past when a contract agreement was not made in time.

Prof. Tabor says, “I think after the contract negotiations, these signs will probably get slid back behind everyone’s desk for next time, because this seems to be the nature of labor, especially here at Mercer.”

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