University of Hawaii faculty approve cost-cutting contract
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
After months of contentious negotiations, UH professors overwhelmingly ratified a six-year contract yesterday that cuts costs for the university in the short term to tackle mounting fiscal woes, but also restores a 6.7 percent pay reduction after 18 months, promises lump-sum payments to reimburse money lost in the pay cuts and includes something in the last two years of the agreement that workers don't hear a lot these days a pay increase.
Under the contract, professors will see 3 percent pay raises in 2013 and 2014.
Meanwhile, professors will recoup money lost in the pay cuts with lump-sum payments starting in 2012.
Members of the University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly are among the last government employees to reach a new contract with the state, and professors acknowledged that they probably fared better than other government employees, who have accepted pay cuts or furloughs or seen layoffs without the prospect of recouping any of those lost wages.
Some observers even suggested that the agreement with UHPA could be good news for the other government labor unions that accepted concessions to help the state grapple with a growing budget gap. That would depend, however, on the assumption that pay would be restored and increased in better times.
Regardless, many view- ed the UHPA agreement as a "smart deal," as one teacher put it.
Meanwhile, others said the contract should be treated separately from other government worker agreements, since the university can raise tuition to cover personnel costs if needed.
Now that UHPA has settled its contract, just one bargaining unit of the United Public Workers that represents groundskeepers, maintenance workers and other blue-collar workers remains in negotiations with the state.
In voting that ended yesterday at noon, some 83 percent of UHPA members approved the new contract, the union said in a news release, while 17 percent voted against it. UHPA represents about 3,500 faculty members.
J.N. Musto, executive director and chief negotiator for UHPA, said in the release that the agreement "addresses the short-term crisis that has resulted from a severe restriction of previously appropriated state general funds." But, he added, there are still concerns about how UH will make it through the recession.
"The long-term future of the university remains uncertain," he said in the news release. "Faculty have ongoing concerns about the health of the UH and want to make sure that higher education remains a priority."
UH President M.R.C. Greenwood said in a statement yesterday that the contract ratification was a "necessary step to financial stability for the University of Hawai'i system." She added, in the statement, "We look forward to working together with our faculty to advocate for the University of Hawai'i, with the message that investing in higher education today is critical to the state's economy and its future."
Yesterday, reaction to the UHPA contract was mixed.
Several professors said they were supporting the new contract given the tough economic times and what other unions had approved.
In September, Hawaii State Teachers Association members agreed to a two-year contract that included furloughs to help close the state's budget deficit. Public-school teachers who work 10-month schedules the vast majority of the more than 13,000 union teachers took 17 furlough days a year while teachers who work year-round would take 21 furlough days a year. The furloughs amount to a 7.9 percent annual pay cut.
A month later, members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association ratified a two-year contract that called for 18 furlough days this fiscal year and 24 furlough days next fiscal year for most state workers. The furloughs amount to about an 8 percent pay cut.
HSTA officials did not return calls for comment.
HGEA would not comment yesterday on the UHPA agreement.
A SPECIAL CASE
State Rep. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the House Labor and Public Employment Committee, said he was a "little surprised" that UHPA was able to include pay increases and pay cut reimbursements in its new contract.
"There was a lot of pressure on them (UHPA) to find some cost-savings somehow," he said.
He added that UH is a special case, since it has the ability to raise tuition.
Rhoads also said other state workers will likely see pay raises back on the table in upcoming contract talks.
"An awful lot of it depends on what the economy does," he said.
UH announced it had reached a contract deal with professors on Jan. 16 a day after UHPA members received their first paychecks reflecting a 6.7 percent pay cut imposed as of Jan. 1. UHPA had filed a request for a temporary restraining order in Circuit Court over the imposed cuts, but a hearing date was never scheduled.
Yesterday, UHPA said it would drop the motion.
The previous contract for professors ran through June 2009.
Four months ago, professors voted overwhelmingly to reject a contract that included a 5 percent pay cut.
Several UH professors said yesterday the new contract was a compromise but certainly not a win-win.
They say salaries for professors are already low, compared with other colleges and when accounting for Hawai'i's high cost of living. And they say that the pay hikes are canceled out if inflation is factored in along with higher costs for health care. Another cause for concern, they said, was a pay lag provision that moves paydays, resulting in the loss of one paycheck in 2010 that would be repaid when faculty retire or leave.
"We are conflicted about that yes vote," said Monisha Das Gupta, an associate professor of ethnic studies. Das Gupta said many professors are living paycheck to paycheck, and will struggle to make ends meet with the pay cuts. She also said she doesn't like the idea of funding the pay increases in the contract with tuition hikes.
The university has not spelled out how it will fund the pay increases, but the governor has said UH can pay for the increases without additional state money because it "has the ability to raise revenue in other ways, specifically through tuition." The university is at the tail-end of a six-year series of tuition increases.
Robert Perkinson, associate professor of American studies, said the contract was "decent given the political realities we find ourselves in." But he added that the state shouldn't be making more massive spending cuts to education, and instead should be bolstering funding to public schools and the university.
He said the ratification brings to an end a long contract dispute, but probably won't improve morale.
Perkinson said the contract is also raising concerns about recruitment and retention.
"You've got a pretty demoralized institution," he said. "Morale is worse than I've ever seen it."
David Ross, chairman of the UH-Mänoa Faculty Senate and a math professor, said the contract has plenty of pros and cons. "For most of the faculty, the concern isn't just the details about their own bottom line so much as the health of the university," he said. "We worry that anything that might make us noncompetitive with other universities could be a problem for the future."
In the midst of ongoing talks regarding furloughs for public school teachers, many outside the university are also eyeing the UHPA contract, including teachers.
Russel Robison, who teaches math at Mililani High School, called the UHPA agreement a "really smart deal."
And he said teachers might have been more amenable to a straight pay cut rather than furlough days if they were given the option to get back lost wages in lump-sum payments.
UHPA members are "doing their share while the economy is hurting," he said, "but they're going to get totally caught up again."