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Faculty vote to approve new contract terms proposed by neutral fact finder after fifteen month stalemate

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After 15 months without a new contract, Mercer’s full-time faculty members have voted to approve contract terms proposed by an outside fact finder after months of negotiations. With approximately 80 percent of faculty voting, the vote taken during the first week of September was 81-2 in favor of accepting the terms which would give a 1.65 percent raise for last year–while the negotiation was taking place and salaries were not increased–and a 1.75 percent raise for the current academic year.

Many Mercer students have remained unaware of the conflict, despite the “No Contract But Still Working” signs faculty have posted across campus. The disagreement over a contract may not seem to have any overall effects on students but it can result in a focusing of resources on matters outside the classroom, and create a tension between faculty and administration.

According to faculty union president and Mathematics Professor Art Schwartz, there are 110 full time faculty members and they all a part of the K-12 NJEA Teachers Union. The NJEA is one of the largest unions in the state.

Nearby community colleges have faced similar situations with some resulting in much worse outcomes, like Essex County College where after years of negotiations and tension between their faculty and Administration the president of the college and 21 faculty were fired.

Professor Schwarz told The VOICE: “What’s different here is there’s only been two, possibly three, times where we had a contract that has expired. There have been some times where we have not had a contract for a time. Once it was seven or eight months, the other time for about four or five months, but in this case it has been almost 15 months.”

The VOICE covered the last difficult negotiation, which occurred in 2013. The seven month stand off included faculty taking the “No Contract but Still Working” signs and picketing an annual gala hosted by the college primarily for local business people and the board of trustees.

The current contract fight included no such protests and the administrators, including the College President Dr. Jianping Wang, and Chief Business and Financial Officer, Dr. Marc Harris, are new and not the same ones involved in the previous dispute.

When a contract expires the old contract continues to be followed, but faculty do not receive raises or adjustments in their salaries.

“Whatever we were getting paid for 2015-2016, is what we are getting paid now” says Schwartz.

Although some New Jersey community colleges have faced similar struggles over contract negotiations, others, like Raritan Valley Community College have been able to achieve faster resolutions. In 2016 faculty there secured a four year contract with two percent raises each year and significant reductions in health care costs in two of the four years.

The primary faculty negotiators included Schwartz and English Professor Ed Carmien. According to Carmien the faculty were ready to negotiate in 2015 but didn’t start until March. The holdup was related to the fact that the union, able to agree on terms offered by administration which was to offer no raise at all. Fact finding by an outside representative was recommended in order to determine if the college was in a financial position that would make a raise impossible.

Carmien explained that a key reason faculty needed a raise, besides increased cost of living in New Jersey, was because of Chapter 78, a policy passed by Governor Chris Christie which requires public employees to pay into their own healthcare costs. This was previously not the case. The payments have increased each year and can add up to several thousand dollars per person on average.

Reached for comment by email, Mercer’s Communications Director, Jim Gardner told The VOICE: “While the faculty has approved the contract, it’s not final until approved by the Board of Trustees. The Board meets next week. It would be premature to comment on behalf of the College prior to the board vote.”

In the time between when the faculty voted to approve the contract offer, but before the Board’s vote, a new contractual question was raised according to several faculty members.

“We have been told that the College will follow a different academic calendar next year. The same calendar was proposed by the administration last year and was not endorsed by faculty,” said a faculty member who asked to remain anonymous. The faculty member continued, “The calendar has some benefits because the school year would start after Labor Day. This is better for students in terms of timing, but they get less instructional time in the classroom. And the faculty still have to be here the same amount of time. It seems odd, just as this difficult negotiation seems to be ending, to make a sudden change without any further input from faculty. Honestly, there are some real mixed messages here. We have another negotiation coming up soon and it’s hard to feel confident in the process now.”

Note: This article has been updated from its print version to clarify that the terms faculty voted to approve were put forth by a neutral fact finder rather than the Mercer administration itself.

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