Productive Idealists

For many years I would tell friends that Wesleyan entered the 1960s well before the decade really started and continued in the sixties spirit decades after the official end of that turbulent time. I meant that Wes was already exploring uncharted, radical territory in the 1950s, and with Norman O. Brown, Carl Schorske on the faculty, along with the impact of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, there was a willingness to defy convention and explore new boundaries in culture and society. This was complemented by curricular innovations under Victor Butterfield, and especially with the university’s commitment to affirmative action and diversity long before other schools recognized their importance. When I was a student here in the mid-’70s this legacy was active and creative, with strong feminist and environmental movements that were exploring intellectual as well as political alternatives to the status quo.

It is easy to treat these trends with irony or cynicism. Were they romantic and idealist? Sure they were, and that was part of their ability to inspire many to go beyond what had been expected of them. Recently, I was asked to review a new book that trashed both the spirit and the accomplishments of that time, Gerald DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged. Although the author has an easy time of showing how much of the romantic rhetoric of the day was not in accord with what was really happening, his book makes no effort at understanding why people were in fact committed to political and cultural change, to social justice. You can read my San Francisco Chronicle book review at:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/04/18/RV4GVQU5M.DTL&type=books

At Wesleyan today it is worth trying to understand the value of idealism and the productive role of imagining radical alternatives to the status quo. When I spoke with prospective students and their parents this weekend, I emphasized how Wesleyan students become innovators, intelligent risk takers whose ideals are cultivated rather than punctured by the education they receive. At a time in our history when technological and cultural change will continue to accelerate, we need people who can continue to learn, to adapt and to become leaders of innovation. We need the courageous creativity of Wesleyan grads in the sciences, arts, business world, education and politics. And we need those grads to remember their commitment to justice even when those around them seem to have forgotten the victims of change. Wesleyan graduates have long been productive idealists, and they will continue to play that role in the future.

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Having seen the small but vocal rally for Wesleyan’s physical plant employees this weekend, I can well imagine some reading this thinking: “Well, Roth, if you are so concerned about justice, why don’t your physical plant employees have a contract?” We continue to negotiate with the union representing these employees, but it has been a frustratingly slow process. Nevertheless, we compromised on our initial proposals many times and reached an agreement with the union representative and the union’s bargaining committee more than a week ago when Wesleyan accepted the offer made by the union. To our great surprise, after we reached this tentative agreement on the proposal, the members of the union rejected the proposal their own representatives had made! We are back at the negotiating table, but it is disturbing to see students enlisted in a protest (“No contract, no peace!”) that seems aimed to make up for the failure of the physical plant employees to agree with their own representatives. It is hard to miss the irony of physical plant employees having extra work to do as they clean up the scrawled messages of their student supporters.

Let me be clear: We are and have been negotiating in good faith throughout the bargaining process, and I am committed to see that those who work for Wesleyan are fairly compensated for the good jobs they do. I hope very much we soon reach a fair and economically sustainable agreement.

On a lighter note, when Sophie saw “contract now!” scrawled on our driveway, she thought we were suddenly to become smaller…

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8 thoughts on “Productive Idealists”

  1. Economic sustainability is exactly the concern of the union members. We are now struggling to live on our current wages in this part of the country–and the contract on the table only puts us farther behind, both in comparison with our counterparts at peer institutions, and in terms of our own household budgets. As we, the secretarial/clerical union workers, enter negotiations, we support the Physical Plant workers who understood how dismal the current contract offer really is. They voted rightly to decline an offer that would have extended this period of deferred maintenance of the people who work at Wesleyan in the lower pay scales.

  2. As the Business Representative for the Local 153 Physical Plant as well as the Secretarial/Clerical bargaining units employed by Wesleyan, I find myself compelled to comment on President Roth’s blog with just the facts.

    For the most part I, like President Roth, believe the University negotiated in good faith throughout these negotiations.

    I also agree that it has been a frustratingly long process as one would expect when Local 153’s opening proposals totaled eight (8) while Wesleyan submitted forty-nine (49).
    Yes, you read it correctly, 49 initial proposals that Wesleyan says they continued to compromise on.

    They almost had as many proposals as members in the bargaining unit.

    Another fact regarding the frustratingly long process was Wesleyans demand to have all employees contribute thirty-three and one-third percent of the premium cost for healthcare no matter what their level of income.

    It is also a fact that I, along with my committee did reach a tentative agreement with the University. The facts that led up to the agreement are:

    The University remained steadfast on going no higher than a 2 ½ % as a general wage increase. The same was true regarding the 33 1/3% premium share for all employees.

    Any agreement had to include the 33 1/3% contribution, even though it represents an increase in contribution of approximate 120% to our members.

    As professional and responsible individuals, the Local 153 bargaining committee was and continues to be, dedicated to getting the best deal possible to present to its members for a vote and that is exactly what they did.

    Knowing a final offer was eminent, the committee successfully negotiated enhancements that went well beyond what Wesleyan was prepared to include their final offer.

    However, these enhancements were conditional on the committee recommending the agreement to its membership.

    It is also a fact that Wesleyan provided additional monies in the form of Flex Credits some time ago and eventually added them to the base of the Facility as well as Administrative Staff.

    Throughout the negotiations Wesleyan insisted these Flex Credits were awarded as a result of a survey that included a comparison of their pension plan with those of other universities and had nothing to do with offsetting the increase in the premium share imposed on non bargaining unit employees back in the early ninety’s.

    During the ratification meeting the committee learned what is best stated in the following e-mail:

    To: “Administrative Employees• Subject Flex Credits

    Dear Faculty and Administrative Staff,

    “Many of you are aware that beginning July 1,2004 Flex Credits will no longer be considered as part of the benefit program, The Flex Credit you currently receive will Instead be added to your base pay.

    These dollars can he used in the same manner you used Flex Credit dollars previously (added to Supplemental)’ Retirement Account or SRA, put into your Medical Reimbursement account or MERA, or spent as regular salary). You will also receive an additional retirement contribution calculated on this additional base pay and the revised base will be used to calculate salary adjustments for the new year.”

    Therefore, Wesleyan did in fact award approximately 3% in Flex Credits, and they were not limited to just supplementing the pension. So it should come as no surprise that the membership rejected the agreement

    Again, it is a fact that the membership rejected the tentative agreement and yes, the final changes were proposed by the committee and agreed to by the University.

    However, given the hand the committee was being dealt at the time by the University, they met their commitment to their members by bringing back an agreement that was the best they could hope for and put it to a vote.

    It is called a “tentative agreement.” for a reason. It is subject to the ratification by the membership.

    So once again yes, it is a fact that the membership rejected the tentative agreement, yes, the final changes were proposed by the committee and agreed to by the University, and however, to lay blame on the committee, given how Wesleyan presented the Flex Credit explanation as to how it was applied, is uncalled for.

    I don’t blame the President for being surprised. I am just as surprised.

    I am surprised at the mocking of the Union, its representatives, membership, and even the student body for supporting us.

    Oh well, I guess we can just “chalk” that one up to experience.

    I would think the time of the office of the Presidency would be better served focused on resolving the issues and revisiting what the University thinks is a fair deal such as the:

    • 120% Increase in Premium Share contributions
    • 2 ½ % Wage increase.
    • Lump sum payments to avoid increases to salary sensitive benefits.
    • Cost of living up 4%.

    The last time we met University we issued an ultimatum of either ratifying the tentative agreement by April 30, 2008, or retroactivity as well as the enhancements are off the table and “they do not care what we do.”

    That does not seem to support the “I hope very much we soon reach a fair and economically sustainable agreement” statement of the President.

    Reminds me of the “Flex Credits” explanation all over again.

    The Local 153 committee stands ready to continue to negotiating in good faith regardless of Wesleyan’s issuance of an ultimatum

    Well, Mr. President, your call.

  3. I certainly intended no mockery, Mr. Hahn. I’m still unclear as to why you felt compelled to reach an agreement you really didn’t want, but all that matters now is that we find common ground. I am hopeful that we will do that!

  4. As I sat at the “bargaining table” for the first time I was concerned about who was at fault. Is there a lack of communication or does Wesleyan University have a mission to take from the workers and leave us without a say? The high paid lawyer ‘dazzled’ us with a power point presentation and could not understand how a ‘tentative’ agreement that had been ‘tentatively’ reached did not pass. He looked at us six Physical Plant workers and our Business Agent and repeated that the contract, that had been resoundingly and unanimously rejected the first time by a vote of 56-0 and the second time 54-2, was a ‘good one’ and he couldn’t understand why we couldn’t sell it to the union body.

    His numbers were as useless as his ability to answer a “YES” or “NO” question. He basically told us that yes and no does not exist in his world, but maybe it does in ours.

    I’m not sure that the world he lives in is so different than ours, or why he, representing Wesleyan, felt that the had to make a distinction, but I do know that the Local 153 overwhelmingly said “NO” to this contract offer and that “YES” Wesleyan’s new commitment is to money and not to the community.

    I also wonder if Wesleyan truly understands the ramifications of their ‘commitment’ to the bottom line. We don’t need to look any further than the cost of fuel, not only for our cars but to heat our homes, to see how rapidly inflation is escalting the cost of living. Gas prices have gone up 11% in the last week, and a 2 1/2% per year pay raise is not going to offset that in the least.

    As we left it with Wesleayn’s attorney, we, the Union, can either accept their offer (2 1/2 % pay raise, 120 % increase in our insurance premium) or they are going to start taking things off the ‘bargaining’ table.

    In our world, that hard line stance is going to severly affect the 62 families of the Local 153 in addition to the Secretaries and Clerical Workers.

    Actions speak louder than words.

  5. I think the workers and union members who’ve already posted made really important points.
    As a student, I want to clarify some information said about the march. From my perspective, it wasn’t small at all. There were 60 people, including workers, students, and professors, who all came out on a beautiful Saturday with only one day’s notice to demonstrate their solidarity in getting a fair contract for the physical plant workers. As we passed through the Wesleyan campus, we got attention from lots of folks who were watching sporting events or enjoying the day outside. A few students who we passed on our way raised fists in the air in solidarity, and chanted along with us. It’s completely clear to me as a student that Wesleyan students support the workers that enable this campus to run. I believe it’s absolutely ridiculous that physical plant workers are being asked to pay a 120% increase in their insurance premium. Is this how Wesleyan treats the workers who make this community strong? The workers as union members had full rights to vote down their contract, especially considering what was offered. The march was a strong action displaying support for physical plant workers.
    I’m surprised by Mr. Roth’s misrepresentation of the facts of the negotiations and the actions taken in response to them. There was no “irony” in physical plant cleaning up student chalking, because the workers who erased the chalking were sub-contracted, and not part of physical plant. Additionally, the chalking was only erased because of President Roth’s chalking ban which inhibits our freedom of speech. Workers and students are not divided on the issue of chalking. If the administration simply lifted the ban, no worker would have to waste time erasing chalk.
    Furthermore, the pun made with the word “contract” just isn’t funny. These are people’s lives which are being discussed and negotiated. Not allowing workers to have affordable health care, especially at an institution like Wesleyan, is absolutely disgusting. I hope Wesleyan administration shapes up it’s response to contract negotiations soon, and that physical plant workers get a contract that they deserve.

  6. Dear President Roth,
    I beg to differ when you say that your comments were not intended to mock. In effect, your blog post implies that the Physical Plant workers are fools, not going along with the contract that their “own representatives” negotiated for them. I have not been involved in any of the contract negotiations as a student or otherwise, but it seems to me that even an outsider considering the facts of the case that have been released can come to an understanding of why this occurred. The Physical Plant workers have gone without a new contract for months; union representatives attempted to attain the best contract possible under the circumstances, which was still not very good, and so the workers voted it down, deciding to again gear up for the struggle instead of settling for minimal raises with a huge increase in healthcare costs.
    In implying that Physical Plant workers are fools, you also essentially dismiss their continued efforts to negotiate a better contract. Well that is easy for you to do, President Roth. Obviously, the stakes are much greater for them than they are for you – you who are assured a decent salary and a decent healthcare plan, as well as the most listened to voice in the University community. Why use this power of yours to denigrate the struggles and claims of those who are just as an important part of making this place work as you? Even if you disagree with the Physical Plant workers’ cause, I find it quite frankly shameful that treat them with such contempt in this very public forum. Not only do you seem to be content with allowing the social stratification between different parts of the University community to continue unheeded, but also, you attempt to justify it by casting the Physical Plant workers and the students who support them as misguided, unworthy, and incompetent. Surely you can do better than that.

  7. I don’t usually reply to comments on the blog, but I want to be sure to emphasize that nowhere in my entry of last week do I see the implications that Ms. Weihs finds. I reject this rhetorical ratcheting up of nastiness (“fools,” “shameful,” “contempt,” “misguided,” “unworthy,” “incompetent”). I respect and appreciate the work of Wesleyan’s physical plant employees (and they have personally been generous and helpful to me and to my family). I recognize and respect their right to negotiate the best contract they can for themselves. The views and “implications” attributed to me above are not mine. The insulting language used in the comment above does not in any way reflect how I feel about either my colleagues on the physical plant staff or the students who support them. If anything I have said or written seemed to indicate the contrary, I apologize for having created that hurtful mis-impression.

    Actions do speak louder than words. I have instructed the university’s negotiation team to work harder to find common ground with the union representing our employees. I very much hope we will reach an agreement that is fair and sustainable for all concerned.

  8. President Roth:
    The workers want a fair , decent, living wage.
    Please listen to thier concerns.

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