Each November the college hosts a gala in the Mercer Conference Center to showcase college programs for the community before the board of trustees meets and the president, Dr. Patricia Donohue, presents her annual report.
This year the main hall –which usually includes large tables full of edible arrangements, ice sculptures and dozens of faculty members waiting to welcome the community– was notably more empty than usual. Though the Viking mascot stood at the door to greet people and there were platters of fruit and cheese, many of the program tables were untended, and through the window behind the carving station red and white protest signs could be seen.
Forty-five full-time faculty members arrived with picket signs at 4:15 and took up post along the main walk into the conference center. By sunset their numbers had increased to 62. They stood for roughly two hours waving their signs and chanting “no contract, but still working” and “settle now!” Some protestors passed out information flyers to people arriving.
English Professor Ed Carmien, who serves on the faculty union negotiating team, told The VOICE that the aim of the protest was “to spread the news about on-going negotiation issues we’re having with the administration.”
The roughly 200 people who attended the gala included administrators, deans, trustees, prominent local business people and prospective students and their parents.
Passing the picket lines outside, most attendees averted their gaze, although Dean of Students Dr. Diane Campbell took a flyer from the protesters and said “I love you guys!” before hurrying to the warmth inside.
The faculty contract, which is renewed every three years, expired on June 30 and negotiations between the college’s administrators and the faculty union have been unproductive for five months. As the stalemate has worn on, faculty members have continued teaching but ceased other administrative tasks.
“What we are doing is we are continuing to work, continuing to teach, continuing to hold office hours, but we are boycotting any kind of campus wide committee meetings until we get a contract,” Professor of English Jack Tabor told The VOICE.
The goal, according to Tabor, is to put pressure on the administrators to offer a fair contract without harming student success.
But the job actions have had indirect affects on the student body. Changes and updates for programs and curriculum cannot be approved because the Curriculum Committee is not meeting. Student academic integrity violations are not being addressed because the Academic Integrity Committee is not being convened, although last week the college’s vice president, Dr. Guy Generals, in an unprecedented move, put together an ad hoc committee –that did not include faculty or follow the usual procedures– to hear student grade complaints.
Academic Integrity Committee chair Professor Heather Jennings told The VOICE that Generals’s ad hoc committee seemed to have dispensed with allowing faculty to speak on their own behalf during the grade appeals. She said, “any committee that is not following the policies that are set in place for the protection of all parties involved makes me concerned about what can happen both internally and externally.”
Despite repeated requests, Vice President Generals declined to comment on the faculty contract negotiations, stating: “As far as commenting on negotiations, it’s a matter of policy that we don’t comment on contract negotiations.”
According to lead faculty negotiator, Prof. Don Reichman, who has taught mathematics and computer science at Mercer for 37 years, the chief sticking point in the negotiations is pay: “At the moment [the problem is] financial. We had no success in negotiating the overall package. We are trying to settle on a financial package first and then we’ll deal with the rest of the contract hopefully down the road.”
The college has faced contract disputes in the past, most recently in 2009. As reported in The VOICE, a resolution came in early November of that year with faculty agreeing to a 3.75 percent annual pay increase instead of the 4 percent they were asking for.
But this year the stakes are higher as a result of a mandate that all state employees now pay into their health care benefits that were once covered entirely by tax payer dollars.
According to Prof. Reichman, faculty salaries have always been calculated based on the principle that they could be substantially lower than comparable private sector jobs because faculty received full medical benefits. With faculty now required to pay 1.5 percent of their salary for health coverage, a percent that will increase to 3 percent next year and continue up for several years after that, the union argues that pay should be raised accordingly.
“The salary increase that is being offered [by the administration] does not offset [the health care costs]. For the first time in the 37 years that I’ve been at this college we’re staring at actual salaries going down. So this is a tough situation. It’s not acceptable to us,” Reichman said.
Although Mercer faculty are college educators, they are part of the NJEA union that represents public school teachers in New Jersey. Like unions laborers across the country, the NJEA has faced considerable governmental opposition in recent years. Governor Chris Christie has frequently criticized the teachers union and he has pushed through changes to tenure laws for K-12 teachers to make it easier to fire them.
During a speech to the Orthodox Union in Teaneck last month, Christie said of the public schools in New Jersey that he “would be happy to take as many dollars as possible away from failure factories that send children on a non-stop route to prison and to failed dreams…”
Professor Robert Pugh, who has taught Health and Physical Education at Mercer for decades and who served as the protesters’ spokesperson at the picket, told The VOICE that “the contract situation doesn’t involve only faculty. Faculty is getting organized for the protest but “professionals, assistants, security, nobody has a contract right now. We are just the forefront.”
Security officers maintained a quiet presence at the protest, mainly directing traffic as usual for the gala attendees, but one officer who asked not to be named told The VOICE: “If we weren’t working we’d be over there with [the protesters]. We’re also working without a contract.”
When asked how much raise the college had offered the faculty, Prof. Pugh said “We can’t talk about numbers. We just want it to be fair. No more no less.”
According to the NJEA’s most recent published salary tables, Mercer is ranked twelfth in the state (out of 18 community colleges) for faculty pay, although Mercer County is the seventh richest county in the state.
When asked his response to the faculty picket lines, Vice President for College Advancement Ed Gwazda told The VOICE: “The college, as an educational institution, supports the freedom of assembly and freedom of free speech. So we see the faculty action today as an extension of their position in their negotiations and we support the principles of the freedom of assembly and free speech.”
At the gala, Mercer president, Dr. Patricia Donohue, when asked about the faculty protest, told The VOICE: “We are in negotiations, we’re still meeting and we have money on the table.” When asked what she thought the faculty wanted she said: “You’d have to ask them.”
Chair of local Chosen Freeholders of Mercer County, John Cimino, who is the son of former MCCC board of trustees chair Anthony “Skip” Cimino, told The VOICE he had not known of the contract negotiations impasse until he saw the picketers outside.
“What the impasse is, I’m not really aware of. It has not come to us on the freeholder board. So once we have an understanding, we may be able to help direct a positive way to get this resolved,” Cimino told The VOICE. But the freeholders have little leverage in internal contract negotiations at the college.
Though faculty participating in the protest directed all comments to their spokesperson, Prof. Pugh, those who spoke briefly to reporters emphasized their goal to protect the learning environment for students while seeking a resolution to the contract conflict.
While going on strike is the most well known union job action, it is not one the faculty have pursued to this point. A walkout did occur once at Mercer in 1986, resulting in larger faculty pay increases, but union labor had more strength at that time.
Nationwide the climate for unions has become more difficult since the 1980s. With the rise of the Tea Party, political conservatives including Governor Christie, have promoted and endorsed numerous anti-union laws. At present, for example, Kentucky’s Republican U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Tea Party darling Rand Paul are attempting “to attach a national anti-union ‘right to work’ law to the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — the federal law designed to provide workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees” according to TYT Network.
English Prof. Carol Bork, who originated the college’s Honors program, summed up the faculty view saying: “There is some irony here because the mission statement [of Mercer] claims that the college is dedicated above all else to student success. I, as a faculty member here, am actually dedicated above all else to student success. That is why I come to work every day, and it seems to me that the contract negotiations indicate that the administration, or at least the negotiating team, doesn’t have the students best interests at heart.”
Russ Chizek, Kyle Kondor and Carl Fedorko contributed reporting for this article.