RISD tech strike impedes academics

Negotiations over wage increases, health care benefits, retirement contributions continue

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2015

Rhode Island School of Design technicians form picket lines during ongoing contract negotiations. Some students elected to join the lines while others respected their cause from afar.

Forty-four Rhode Island School of Design technicians have been on strike since Thursday, shutting down many of the school’s studios and impeding access to certain buildings. The strike is a result of breakdowns in contract negotiations that have been ongoing between the technicians and the administration since May 2014.

Technicians operate machines and shop spaces in RISD’s studios, ensuring a safe environment for students. Without the technicians, professors are unable to use these spaces during classes.

“The campus has been basically shut down,” said Erik Lack, president of the RISD Student Alliance, adding that many professors have moved classes to the Fleet Library, other school buildings, cafes or parks.

Student responses to the strike range from impassioned to respectful, Lack said, adding that some refuse to cross the picket lines and enter the technicians’ workplaces, while others have supported the technicians by joining the picket lines, Lack said. “There aren’t any students that don’t value the work that the techs do,” he added.

“RISD believes in freedom of expression and respects the technicians’ right to strike,” wrote Jaime Marland, RISD director of public relations, in an email to The Herald. “At the same time, the college’s primary concern is students’ education. Arrangements are being made to minimize the impact of such an action.”

Though RISD administrators have expressed hope that the strike will conclude soon, neither the administration nor the technicians are currently willing to budge in contract negotations that have spanned several months.

Negotiations began in May in preparation for the previous contract’s June expiration date.

In June 2014, the union proposed a wage increase of 3 percent and an increase in retirement contributions from 8 to 10 percent, said Tucker Houlihan, president of the RISD Technical Association. The latter increase would return technician’s retirement contributions to pre-2008 recession levels.

The contract RISD proposed in the summer “made no change to their retirement contributions, nor were the technicians singled out in 2008,” said Brian Goldberg, associate vice president for strategic initiatives in the office of the RISD president.

Health care premiums emerged as another major sticking point in the negotiations.

The most significant disagreement came over the university’s proposal to increase the percentage that technicians paid for their health care premiums by 5 percent, citing the passage of the Affordable Care Act and increasing premium costs as motivating factors, Houlihan said.

But “the premiums did not go up this year,” Houlihan said, adding that nonetheless, the administration “shifted the cost on us.”

This fall, RISD offered a “package deal,” in hopes of settling the dispute, Houlihan said. The terms of the proposal included a 5 percent health care premium increase, a 2.25 percent wage increase and an 8 percent retirement contribution. The deal would also replace the retroactive wage increase for the months spent during contract negotiations with a signing bonus slightly lower in sum.

In October, union negotiators brought the university’s contract proposal to union membership for ratification on two occasions, with the proposal failing each time, Goldberg said.

When Houlihan brought the proposal to the union membership for a vote, he warned that it would be “hard to get a majority,” he said. Only four out of 44 members supported the proposal.

After the first proposal failed to pass, the administration offered the same proposal again as its “last, best proposal,” Houlihan said. Still, the proposal remained unpopular, with just seven out of 44 members in support.

The school then chose to declare an impasse, which legally allows the administration to implement the terms of the proposal without a finalized contract, Goldberg said.

“RISD felt it was important to implement the terms of the October agreement so that technicians would receive raises prior to the holiday season,” Marland wrote.

“They very wisely declared an impasse and made us start paying more for our health costs, even though the premiums didn’t go up,” Houlihan said. Under the new health care costs, employees who made under $100,000 saw their share of premium costs increase, those earning between $100,000 and $150,000 saw a decrease and those making over $150,000 saw their share stay the same.

“Through a federal mediator, RISD continued a dialogue with the (Technical) Association over the winter,” Marland wrote. “In late March, RISD and the union’s bargaining team reached another agreement (also signed by the union president), which extended the contract from a three-year to a four-year term. Again, RISD technicians did not ratify the agreement.”

Since the impasse, the two sides have met twice — on Dec. 19 and again on March 25, Houlihan said.

On both occasions, Joe Whelan — a contract labor lawyer hired by RISD in December — said the administration was “not going to negotiate,” and that “if we talk about anything, it has to be revenue-neutral,” meaning that it would not incur further costs to RISD, Houlihan said.

The technicians have demonstrated more willingness to compromise.

The union proposed a pre-ratified offer that accepted the terms implemented after the impasse, with a stipulation asking the administration to put the 8 percent retirement contribution into the contract. The contribution is currently a benefit, not a contractual obligation, for anyone who is not a full-time faculty member, Houlihan said. The union also included a concession that, in the case of another economic downturn, RISD could lower the 8 percent, he added.

“That’s a guarantee we don’t make to any of our staff unions,” Goldberg said, adding that the contract has a clause that requires the administration to give unions 60 days notice if the retirement benefit changes.

The “union filed an unfair labor practice with the National Labor Board in Boston three weeks ago,” Houlihan said. “We want (the administration) back at the table to negotiate. Not to talk, to negotiate.”

“RISD’s offer remains open, and we are willing to meet with the technicians to discuss these issues at any time,” Marland wrote. “The college is hopeful the strike will conclude quickly.”

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