Fledgling UConn Health Center union caught in concession turmoil

Bruce Mayer never had grand ambitions of becoming a union boss, as he calls it. But since the research biologist was elected president of the new faculty union at the UConn Health Center in January, he’s gotten something of a crash course in labor relations.

“Anything that can happen to your union will, in the next six months,” is how he describes it.

Bruce Mayer

Bruce Mayer in his Farmington office

Mayer became the head of a state employee union at a time when public-sector unions had been thrust into the spotlight by the fight over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.

The next month, shortly before the faculty union began negotiating its first contract, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced he was seeking $2 billion in labor concessions as part of his two-year budget. The resulting $1.6 billion concessions deal won overwhelming support from Mayer’s union, passing by a vote of 283 to 33. The vote to ratify the union’s first contract passed by an even larger margin, 290 to 26.

But enough unionized state employees voted against the concession package for it to be rejected, which could lead to up to 6,500 layoffs if state union leaders don’t find an alternative.

It also leaves uncertain the status of Mayer’s union’s pending first contract, which includes the concession deal framework. The union can’t collect dues without the contract, which would also establish grievance and arbitration procedures that don’t exist now.

“We’re kind of on life support, if you will,” Mayer said.

Nearly all of the 34 bargaining units that comprise the 15 state employee unions have existing contracts that remain in effect through at least next year, regardless of the fate of any concession plan. But there are three exceptions: one correctional bargaining unit, which had a contract that expired June 30; a newly formed union of state police captains and lieutenants that does not yet have a contract; and the UConn Health Center chapter of the American Association of University Professionals.

Maureen McGuire, a spokeswoman for the health center, said the situation could best be described as a holding pattern. If the concession package is enacted in some form, the faculty union contract could be implemented. If not, it’s likely that more discussions will be needed. Henry Murray, a labor attorney for the faculty union, offered a similar assessment. Mayer said nothing in the contract explicitly depends on the concession package, but it includes job security and wage provisions that are based on that deal’s framework.

Mayer’s union has 550 members, including research scientists and physicians who teach at the UConn School of Medicine. Most generate at least a portion of their salaries through research grants or patient care, Mayer said, and do jobs not traditionally identified with unions.

The union’s beginnings were rocky. Previous attempts to unionize health center faculty in 1999 and 2000 failed. The union won approval in November 2009–by a two-vote margin.

It took more than a year before officers were elected; in the interim, faculty toiled over a constitution, a contentious process that included rejection of the first proposal. Some thought that during that time, those who opposed unionization might try to have the union decertified, but that never happened.

Mayer describes himself and his fellow officers–one is an educator in the school of public health; another is a cardiologist–as something of a compromise between the most vocal union supporters and the faculty who opposed unionization. Those who were best equipped to run the union would have had a hard time getting elected, he said.

The close margin of the unionization vote could have been “a recipe for all kinds of strife,” said Dr. David Dorsky, a medical school professor who was active in the unionization efforts and constitution process. While many faculty saw unionization as a way to gain a voice in issues affecting the health center, Dorsky said, others adamantly opposed being in a union. “Many people feel that their own personal excellence is all that they need in order to thrive at work,” he said.

More recently, though, there hasn’t been much vocal opposition, Dorsky said, and some who were critical at the start are now participating in the union.

“It’s been slow and very contentious at times, but I think now people are calmed down,” he said.

While the uncertainty of the contract situation is unsettling, Mayer said there’s also reason to be hopeful. Prospects for the future of the health center have changed significantly since the 2009 union vote. At the time, university leaders were pursuing a merger between UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital and Hartford Hospital, and union backers attributed the success of the unionization vote in part to concern among clinicians about the potential merger. Two days after the union election, university leaders scrapped the merger plan.

Earlier this year, Malloy won legislative approval for an $864 million renovation and expansion plan for the health center that would allow Dempsey to remain on its own and positions the health center as a key piece of the governor’s economic development plans.

The health center is also poised to get new leadership, with a new UConn president and a search for the successor of former medical school dean and university vice president for health affairs Dr. Cato Laurencin, who stepped down July 1.

Because faculty members had been among the only health centers workers not represented by unions, Mayer said, it sometimes seemed like they were the biggest targets when the health center had money woes. There was also a sense that the faculty didn’t have a say in decisions.

Now there’s a faculty union seat on the search committee for Laurencin’s replacement.

For now, Mayer said, the biggest issues for faculty include salaries, which have not increased in three years, even as administrators got raises last fall. The contract the union negotiated calls for a 4 percent raise for faculty retroactive to February.

The pending contract also calls for a joint task force on compensation and allows the contract to be reopened to address noneconomic issues. Mayer said the union hopes to address pay equity issues–not to equalize pay, but to develop a more rational system for salaries, which can vary widely.

The now-dead concession deal won strong majorities from the unions representing higher education faculty. Some state workers who opposed the deal expressed concerns about a plan to raise the retirement age, which Mayer said tends not to be a major consideration for faculty who often plan to work well past anyone’s definition of a retirement age.

Mayer fits his union work in with his research, which examines how cells signal to each other. If there’s a silver lining to the hectic start to his union job, maybe it’s the experience he’s gotten already.

Later on, he said, “it will all seem easy.”