Student Activists Win Partial LTE Solution Jobs

- Sue Vilbrandt
Union Labor News
September 2001

        A breakthrough victory was won recently in the battle to win permanent jobs with benefits for Limited Term Employees, or LTEs, on the UW campus. A provision in the proposed state budget creates a two-year pilot program at UW-Madison to create permanent jobs for at least fifty workers based on how long they have been on the UW's payroll as LTEs.
        At this writing, it is still unknown whether the provision will survive Gov. McCallum's veto pen. "We've come this far and we're not going back. We're going to hold McCallum personally responsible if this gets cut out of the budget," said David Garza, a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC).
        SLAC has been agitating around the question of LTEs on campus over the last year, arranging meetings with the Chancellor and/or his representatives, holding teach-ins on the issue, and leafletting students about the plight of LTEs.
        Like the campus unions, students were becoming increasingly frustrated with administration stonewalling and their flat-out refusal to acknowledge the problem. Administrators claimed that even if there were problems, they were powerless; only the Legislature had the authority to create new permanent positions that could reduce the school's reliance on LTEs.
        Following one such meeting with the administration, SLAC member Sarah Turner, a UW Junior, crossed paths with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala in the Memorial Union. Turner said that, after explaining her concerns, Chvala agreed that the LTE question was a big problem that had been going on for far too long. Further, Chvala said it wouldn't cost that much to fund the permanent positions and that he would pursue the issue.
        "I half-believed it when Chvala said he was willing to do something," Turner reflected, "I thought he was SAYING he would just so I would go away."
        Nonetheless, Turner persevered, knowing that the state budget was under discussion and that any solution would have to be part of that process. Chvala was willing, Turner reported back to administrators, to introduce a remedy to get the UW on track to begin correcting its long-standing LTE problem.

The time was ripe.
        Unaware that she was having any effect, in the weeks that followed, Turner continued to knock on doors in the State Capitol, pursuing any and all channels to air the LTE issue. A freelance journalist, Turner also succeeded in having several articles on the exploitation of LTEs published in campus papers and in Isthmus, a Madison weekly.
        Over the summer, as budget deliberations were coming to a head, Turner and other SLAC members kept up the pressure by handing out flyers during new student orientation sessions. SLAC's flyer, "The Shocking Truth Revealed!", explained how the UW routinely denies LTEs benefits and union representation, and how racial profiling of Latino workers led to the firing of more than two dozen Latino workers last spring. The later issue in particular, was a sore point for the administration that caused much embarrassment for the school. Several other issues such as the UW's connection with sweatshop labor and the need for more diversity on campus were also highlighted in SLAC's flyer.

        UW Vice Chancellor John Torphy acknowledged that increasing student pressure led to discussions between UW officials and Sen. Chvala, and the resulting pilot project to convert LTE positions in the budget.
        Torphy remarked that, "I think that language is consistent with what the unions and student groups were interested in." Torphy added that he would have preferred the 100 positions originally proposed by Chvala. Before the budget was sent to the Governor, a compromise in the Legislature's conference committee cut the number of new positions to 50.
        Torphy says he's in favor of expanding the program in future years if the analysis of the pilot is favorable. The newly created positions may ultimately number more than 50 as some are likely to be less than full-time. The administration and the unions agree that creating some part-time positions would meet the needs of both the workers and the hiring departments.

Will They Stay?
        According to Torphy, the goal of the pilot is to improve job retention in addition to helping those who have been long-term LTEs in mainly food service, clerical and custodial occupations. "Retention is still going to be a problem--whether the individual is an LTE or a permanent employee--unless higher wages are negotiated for those classifications," said Torphy.
        "We are hiring LTEs into permanent positions on a regular basis, but there is still substantial turnover," explains Torphy. Approximately 30 percent of newly-hired permanent employees formerly worked as LTEs, he says.
        AFSCME Local 2412 President Gary Mitchell agrees. "They aren't going to be able to hold people in these jobs if the starting wage is only $8-something an hour." Mitchell hopes to see some progress at the bargaining table where state employee contracts are currently under negotiation. "I think it's clear that custodians, food service workers and program assistants need all, or at least the bulk of, any 'market adjustment' money that the state has made available," he said.
        Poverty wages for the lowest-paid workers has been a theme in recent protest rallies in Madison calling for fair wages for state employees. In negotiations, the state has proposed wage increases of only three percent over the two-year contract. The unions say that amounts to a pay cut.
        Mitchell, whose local represents administrative support workers, and AFSCME Local 171 which represents blue collar, technical, security and public safety workers on campus, have already met with Torphy to discuss how the LTE conversion project might work.
        "While there's still some disagreement on whether or not there is, in fact, a problem, they have at least said that this is a place where we can start to address it," says Mitchell. "The Madison labor community and the UW administration are on the same page, at least enough to say let's try something and evaluate how it works. We both come from different positions, but let's see where this takes us."
        The AFSCME locals are taking the position that the problem has been identified and needs to be fixed, "and we're going to watch how it gets fixed," says Mitchell. "Every time you try to fix a problem like this, somebody finds a way to get around it," he complained. "So we don't want to get wedded to any particular fix which could turn out to be another problem down the road."

Guarded Optimism
        Mitchell says such 'fixes' in the past have led campus departments to find more creative ways to skirt the LTE law, such as creating half-way measures like 'project' positions which the unions also see as problematic.
        Turner expresses similar skepticism of the administration. "They've become part of the problem they should be trying to fix. Their job is to serve the people of the state of Wisconsin," she says, "but all they seem to care about are their big corporate donors and building more Biotech buildings."
        She feels the administration and the departments routinely engage in what Turner describes as "a sleight-of-hand, making everything look good on paper."
        The vast majority of these jobs should legitimately be permanent jobs, Turner feels. "You can go into any department on campus, any office, and there will be an LTE who will tell you they've worked there for years with no benefits," she contends. "A lot of them don't even realize they're getting screwed because the system of abuse has been institutionalized. They just think, 'well, that's the way it is.'"
        According to Mitchell, LTEs on campus number between 1200 and 1900 at any given time. "We're going to have to see how they implement this language--if it survives the veto--and see if they're doing what we want them to do." Like Turner, Mitchell expects the reporting requirements of the pilot project will bring more light to the problem and will likely demonstrate that the fix is inadequate. "Then we'll be in a position to say, what about the other 1200 people?"

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