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Reaction mixed as GEU, MSU agree to tentative 3-year deal

April 22, 2008

With an emphasis on total compensation rather than a 5 percent wage increase, the Graduate Employees Union struck a tentative agreement with MSU on a three-year contract Tuesday.

Although the initial reaction to the agreement from union officers was positive, some expressed concern about issues both addressed and excluded by the new agreement.

Although the wording isn’t final and the content has to be ratified by a two-thirds vote from the general membership within the next two weeks, the tentative agreement represents the last stage in the union’s contract negotiations.

“We’re pretty excited,” said Sandra Schimdt, president of the union. “To have a contract at this juncture is exciting. Now we can focus on the last part of the semester and the contract is essentially done.”

The contract addresses many of the issues the union enumerated in its strike platform, ranging from wage increases and improved health care coverage to retention of parking rights and cheaper co-pays on prescription drugs.

That said, there were differences between what the union asked for and what it received.

Rather than a 5 percent wage increase, the new agreement calls for a stepped wage increase for the three-year contract, starting with a 3 percent increase the first year, followed by a 2.75 percent increase and a 2.5 increase.

But what is lost in wage increases is made up for in other places, as part of what the university refers to as the “total compensation package,” said Karen Klomparens, dean of the Graduate School.

“The projected increases to the cost of the health care are going to be higher in year two and year three than in year one, so you get more of a stipend in years in which you have less health insurance cost and vice versa,” Klomparens said.

In lieu of a consistent and higher wage increase, union members will earn benefits that include $2,100 each year toward insuring a dependent, an increase in prescription drug coverage up to $7,500 and reduced co-pays for prescription medications.

The trade-off works because of how much is covered by the new agreement, Schmidt said.

“While we still need a 5 percent increase to keep up with inflation, this helps to offset everything else,” she said. “People would still need more wages, but collectively, this appeals to everyone more. We got more than we expected.”

Parties reached an agreement at 6 a.m. as union members stood outside in multiple strike locations waiting to stage a one-day walkout. The call explaining that the negotiations were over came just as the walkout was supposed to begin and on the heels of a 14-hour bargaining session.

University spokesman Terry Denbow declined to comment on the negotiation process and whether the threat of a strike impacted it. The contract has been under negotiation since October.

Some agreements reached were met with less praise. There was no movement on the payment of college fees, such as engineering fees that were found to partially pay teaching assistant salaries, and the addition of another tuition waiver to the summer session was approved rather than the flexible “roll-over” system.

“If you look at what we’ve got and what we had in the strike platform, you see numbers that are not the same,” said Kristin Bott, union vice president for organizing and outreach. “It’s bargaining — you compromise.”

While other issues, including unit definitions, were not addressed, the resolution to the contract was positive overall, Bott said.

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