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Brown University students support library workers’ bid to win contract, Rhode Island, 2010
Brown University, a private Ivy League research university located in Providence, Rhode Island, enrolls nearly 9,000 students and employs over 1,500 workers, over a hundred of which are employed in the school’s libraries. The 2007-2010 collective bargaining agreement between the university and the United Service and Allied Workers Rhode Island (USAW-RI) Library Unit was officially set to conclude on 30 September 2010. The USAW-RI union represented nearly half of Brown University’s library workers, in addition to its dining employees, parking officers, service responders, and mailroom drivers.
Disappointed with the administration’s proposed changes to their contracts, library workers and union representatives called for re-negotiations. Their primary concerns centered around the workers’ health insurance policy. The school demanded library workers gradually increase their health insurance contributions from 6% in 2007 to nearly double at 11% in the first year, followed by 13% the next year, and 15% in the third year. The school offered a wage increase of 1.25% each year to mitigate the increase of premium contributions shared by library workers.
The contract language also suggested dropping one of the two health insurance providers offered by the university, Blue Cross or UnitedHealthcare. Although the costs of the two insurance companies were different, this gap was balanced by the different sizes of the network of health care providers from which the librarians could choose. The pricier premium meant wider regional availability of health care providers, a crucial feature for many of the library workers with family members on their plan in different parts of the country.
In addition to higher contributions and fewer providers, the administration pursued the removal of the buyout option. This buyout option allowed library workers covered by the insurance of their spouses’ employer to forgo Brown University’s health care plan and instead receive a buyout payment.
Aside from the proposed changes in the library workers’ health care plans, the university also proposed new limits for shift change moratoriums. When shift changes are made, workers are notified and then given a period to discuss and re-negotiate the shift change with employers. The new contract language suggested the period for consultation be reduced from 6 months to 45 days.
Before the contract expired in September 2010, Brown had already eliminated several library security positions from the worker union by sub-contracting the positions to non-union workers, in addition to cutting 12 positions in the libraries’ book purchasing office in a restructure in 2009, raising concerns about the administration’s next steps in cutting worker benefits. The union also worried about its position and power in future hiring for Brown’s library expansion.
Vice President for Finance and Administration Huidekoper defended the proposed changes citing the much higher health care payments from workers at other institutions in the region and suggesting that the library workers contributed below the market average. Huidekoper also expressed concerns about a university budget deficit of $3 million and the increasing cost of undergraduate financial aid.
With the support of Brown Student Labor Alliance, a student organization that campaigned for workers’ rights, Brown’s unionized library workers began their campaign to resist and re-negotiate the contract changes proposed by the university’s administration. They hoped to reduce the increase in their health insurance contributions, keep the same number of providers, and preserve the buyout option as well as the 6-month moratorium.
On 14 October 2010, the Student Labor Alliance sponsored a protest at the university’s humanities and social sciences library, the Rockefeller Library also nicknamed “the Rock.” Sixty to seventy students, faculty members, and Providence community members attended the protest that also drew support from local politicians, such as then-candidate, now-elected state representative Christopher Blazejewski. The prospective representative for Rhode Island’s second district spoke at the rally stating, “We will fight with you because you are fighting for all Rhode Islanders.” Protesters carried banners that read “Justice for Library Workers” and chanted “Stand up. Fight back.” on the library steps. Meanwhile, negotiations continued inside. The USAW-RI called in a federal mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services to facilitate the ongoing negotiations. The 14 October 2010 negotiations ended with an extension of the library workers’ previous 2007-2010 contract to 28 October 2010 for further negotiation meetings.
By the next week, the union was willing to increase contributions to 6.25% after 2 years coupled with a 4% wage increase, but the administration only reduced their proposed gradual contribution plan by 0.5% for each year (10.5% in the first year, 12.5% the next, and 14.5% in the last) and kept their proposed wage increase at 1.25%. The university did, however, agree to hire a union door guard at the sciences library.
On 23 October 2010, a handful of students held a protest outside of President Ruth Simmons’ Family Weekend speech. They carried banners and posters that demanded justice for library workers. The students timed the protest to coincide with the annual weekend that hosts an influx of student families. After President Ruth Simmons gave her speech, student Haley Kossek ’13 and library worker Roland Harper delivered a hollowed-out book containing a petition of 500 signatures.
The administration and library workers failed to come to an agreement and extended the 2007 contract for a third time until the next bargaining meeting on 8 November 2010. On that same day, the SLA held another protest, this time at the University Hall where the offices of Brown’s senior administration are housed. More than 100 protesters demanded to speak with University President Ruth Simmons or Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Beppie Huidekoper. Both administrators were not present at the time. Nonetheless, the protest continued and demonstrators chanted, “Don’t hide, Huidekoper.” The rally included performances by local community groups and speeches by students and faculty members. Associate Professor of Africana Studies Corey Walker spoke to the crowd and called for a university-wide strike if the library union decided to strike. Members of the student body and Brown Dining Services’ union echoed his call. Karen McAninch, the business agent for the union, said that the library union did not have any plans for a strike, although it had authorized the bargaining committee to use the tool.
Later in the afternoon, the protesters marched from University Hall to the lobby of the Rockefeller Library; this action delayed the negotiation that was supposed to take place nearby. The demonstrators made a request for a delegation to sit in during the negotiation, but the federal mediator, who had been working with both the union and the university since September, rejected the students’ proposal.
Negotiations finally concluded on 9 November 2010 when the unionized library workers voted 25 to 14 to accept an agreement. The new four-year contract stipulated an increase of worker premium share to 7% then to 9% in 2013 and finally 12% on 30 September 2014. The plan also entailed a 2% wage increase for the next four years, supplemented by an additional increase of 1.5% in 2013 and 1% when the contract ended in 2014. The contract preserved both health insurance providers and the buyout option. The workers and the administration reached a compromise on the shift change moratorium. Under the new bargaining agreement, the administration had to give workers a minimum of 30 days notice and not less than 60 calendar days for negotiations to follow the provision of notice to the union, totalling to a minimum period of 90 calendar days for shift changes.
Both parties agreed to more frequent meetings of a joint union-management committee that would facilitate discussions about union workers’ opportunities for professional development. These meetings were to focus on studying proposals for job training programs.
For the most part, the Brown University library workers successfully re-negotiated their bargaining agreement with the administration. They managed to preserve both the number of insurance providers and their buyout option. Although the workers’ preferred insurance contribution and wage increases were not met, the re-negotiated increases were far better than what the university initially proposed. The three-time extension of the 2007-2010 contract was a testament to the unionized library employees’ ability to use their bargaining power to reach an agreement.