For the past few weeks, the Colgate community has been abuzz about the midterm elections that took place on November 2. Another sect of the Colgate community, the university’s employees, however, has been talking about a very different election.
On October 7, 25 Colgate employees hailing from the library, mail services and Campus Safety dispatch voted to be represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 200 in a vote of 14 to 10, with two ballots contested.
Currently, this vote has not caused any immediate change, but it has set in motion a series of events that will eventually alter the contracts of all 25 workers involved in the election and transform the way each interacts with Human Relations (HR).
Neither side, SEIU Local 200 nor HR, is sure of the timeline for writing new contracts. However, Lead Organizer of SEIU Local 200 Shelley Ceravolo said the next step after the vote will be to have a meeting with all 25 employees and send out contract surveys before any negotiations with the University can begin.
The election, which was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, was a formal process, which culminated at 5:00 p.m. in James C. Colgate Hall.
Upon hearing the outcome of the election, which was decided by a simple majority, supporters of the union were satisfied.
“I’m so relieved,” Ceravolo said. “They really deserve it.”
Cerevolo was referring to the 25 workers who would be joining SEIU, some of whom watched as the ballots were counted.
One such employee, Campus Safety Dispatcher Judy Murphy put the election in perspective.
“People want fair and equitable treatment,” Murphy said.
“The University is a great place to work, but some jobs definitely need more consideration.”
Also present at the vote were representatives from HR.
In anticipation of the vote, HR sent out a series of mailings, in question and answer form, which outlined the consequences of unionization. HR also called a meeting with the prospective union members. Associate Vice President for Human Resources Pamela Prescod-Caesar made clear that the University does not have a policy for or against its employees unionizing, yet she outlined some concerns from herdepartment’s perspective.
“The university would prefer that we not have to have a union because, in my personal view, the unions take away some of the individual voice of employees,” Prescod-Caesar said.
In a mailing sent to all 25 employees involved in the election dated September 23, 2010, and signed by Prescod-Caesar, the concept of an individual voice was addressed.
Point number seven asked: “Am I giving anything up in terms of the voice I have now?”
Below this question was an answer: “In many ways, yes. The choice to become unionized is a decision to give up the right that you currently have to deal directly with the University when it comes to your terms and conditions of employment.”
Prescod-Caesar emphasized that she was confident in her employees ability to deal with HR in aprofessional and informed manner.
“[Colgate University employees] are more in tune to what is going on, they are more in tune to whether their wages are comparable or not. It’s amazing how many people come to us and say ‘I went on salary.com and where do you get your data from because I think I should be making x amount of money,'” Prescod-Caesar said.
Prescod-Caesar attributed this ability to the fact that “times have changed,” and also since the employees in question are working in higher education, they have a different sense of empowerment, and therefore do not necessarily need a union to represent their interests.
Ceravolo disagreed. She doubts that employees have the means to discuss sensitive issues with HR and would instead be better off communicating their problems through a Business Representative provided by SEIU.
“If they have an issue like their pay is wrong, if they have an issue with the way the management is treating them or they have an issue with discrimination then they go to their Rep and their Rep will go to HR and try to come up with a solution instead of them going by themselves to HR,” Ceravolo said.
Unionizing, according to Ceravolo also ensures that every issue brought to HR’s attention is seen in its entirety, not just brushed under the rug.
“Usually what I hear happens [after an employee makes a complaint to HR] is they say ‘O.K. let me look into it’ and they never get back to them,” Ceravolo said.
Unionized employees have the advantage of a Business Representative and a lawyer who can file official grievances in order to ensure that every issue is discussed and resolved.
When asked whether or not non-unionized employees at Colgate have the means to file such a grievance on their own, Ceravolo said, “I doubt they have the means to or they would need a lawyer that they would have to pay for.”
Colgate employees were receiving mixed messages from HR and SEIU when it came to the issue of combining the three different departments library, mail services and campus safety dispatch into one single unit.
In the September 23 mailing, HR stated: “It is unclear as to why the union is trying to represent employees from these three different departments in a single unit. We assume the unit found some limited interest in each of these three departments and decided to roll them into a single group. The collection of these three departments into a single unit seems odd since the interests of the employees in the unit are potentially quite different.”
Cerevolo acknowledged that there was an interest that applied to all three groups and that interest was “respect, protection and a voice.” Although the three groups would fall under the same contract, different articles in the contract pertain only to specific groups.
Prescod-Caesar claimed that the mailings were for educational purposes because some of the employees involved in the election had been severely misinformed or were confused. She acknowledged that some employees had “done their homework” but many employees were unaware of the fact that they actually had to go down to James C. Colgate hall and vote “no” because they could not just opt out of the union.
Colgate employees, who had been in contact with Buildings and Grounds employees, a group that has been represented by SEIU for several years, initially approached Cerevolo with the hope to expand the membership of SEIU’s local 200 on campus.
Prescod-Caesar admitted that this push for unionization “caught us by surprise”.
Prescod-Caesar said she imagines that unionizing is a trend in higher education as of late, but is unsure of what to expect in regards to other University employees hoping to unionize as well.