By Emyle Watkins, Art & Photography Director
In June, Canisius College’s Board of Trustees enacted a cut to benefits of faculty and staff members affecting how much the college will put in their retirement funds. When the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the union representing 62 facilities workers on campus, were asked to absorb the same cuts, the union declined. This led to a negotiation and discussion process that has lasted over eight months and left facility workers and campus administration at odds over the pension reduction.
The announced reduction in the eight percent pension match to four percent occurred the same month the Board of Trustees projected that the college would be running a million-dollar operating deficit. The college maintains that the pension reduction is fiscally responsible and prudent for the college, as the total sum of savings from reducing the pension match for all faculty and staff is $900,000, according to a written statement provided to The Griffin by President John J. Hurley.
Faculty and staff saw this reduction implemented in July 2017. However, the unionized facilities workers, who belong to the Local 200 United of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have used their collective bargaining power to continue to receive the eight percent match. The college’s spending on SEIU employees pension would have been reduced by $88,000 otherwise.
Under the previous pension match, employees who put two percent or more of their salaries in a college retirement account, would also get an eight percent match from the college. Under the pension reduction, employees will see their two percent matched with just an additional four percent.
The college asserts that it does not want to treat one group of employees — the SEIU members — differently than the other staff and faculty who have had to absorb the pension benefit cuts.
In a letter provided to The Griffin by Chris Ring, the Local 200 SEIU chairman, that was sent to Hurley before Christmas on behalf of SEIU members, the SEIU said they “have witnessed the deterioration of morale over the past twelve years.” The letter also describes their perspective on staffing, as well as spending they feel is inessential, and concerns about their working environment and compensation.
Ring has also expressed in a previous interview with The Griffin, the SEIU’s concern that if they lose their current pension match, it will not be reinstated.
“We know if we give [the retirement] up, it’s never coming back. They pay here isn’t all that great, the benefits are what people are here for,” Ring said.
According to Hurley’s written statement, since the SEIU’s contract expired on June 30, 2017, the college offered six other benefits in return. The college offered the SEIU an additional day off, a one-time contract signing bonus between $250-$400 per member, an acceleration of their pension plan eligibility from 18 months to 12 months, coverage of the mandatory family paid leave insurance premiums by the college and the healthcare offerings for workers to be maintained. Additionally, the college promised the inclusion of the SEIU in any future reinstatements of the pension match without a need for bargaining.
“We don’t pretend that this [offer] equates to the loss of the retirement contribution, but as Marco [Benedetti] said, it was an attempt to make it more palatable to them, to find ways that we could improve the contract and their experience here without spending as much as we were spending,” Hurley said in an interview on Feb. 7 with Griffin staff, that included Benedetti, who is the vice president for business and finance.
The SEIU rejected this offer, which the college described as its second, and “final” offer. As reported by Griffin managing editor Nathan Ress, in November facilities workers held a vote to either “accept the most recent contract” or “to authorize strike.” Workers voted in favor of authorizing the strike, allowing the bargaining committee to authorize a walkout if talks with the college did not progress favorably. No strike was imminent at the time, but the college did decide to extend the SEIU contract after this offer was rejected.
Now, according to Benedetti, there is no risk of a strike, because the two sides are operating under a contract extension that prohibits a walkout.
“The threat was real, there was a period of time that we were without an an extension, approximately a couple of months. And at that point in time, they could’ve chosen to do that, but right now we’re in an extension through April 12,” Benedetti said.
With the contract extension, facilities workers will maintain their eight percent pension contributions, even as negotiations continue. Hurley expressed in an interview concerns regarding clarity in the previous negotiations. He also added that going forward, he remains optimistic on the situation, if a compromise can be reached.
“I’ve said this again and again, I love these people, they do good work, they keep the college running,” Hurley said. “We understand that, but everyone has been forced to give something back, in this environment and again, it’s to keep the college affordable for the students. So in that sense, I remain optimistic. But, if there isn’t a compromise, then, I’m less optimistic.”
ProPublica reports that college expenditures on executive compensation increased from $1,134,585 to $1,262,773 from 2014 to 2015, based on the college’s IRS 990 filings (2016 data was not immediately available). In the same interview, Hurley addressed this apparent increase in executive compensation saying that the IRS 990 form is filed on a different time period than the college’s fiscal year, which runs June 1 to May 31, and thus picks up months from two different college fiscal years, which could unfairly skew the data.
Additionally, both college executives and facilities workers receive tuition remission for their children as part of total compensation. Hurley added that if his daughter, for example, was attending college one year, but not the next, his total compensation is quoted at a different value.
Both Hurley and Benedetti explained that they’ve seen cuts in their own compensation packages.
“I personally, in 2016, took a 10 percent pay cut, my benefits have been reduced. I’m now one of the lowest paid presidents among the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, but I do this because I love the place and I want to see it thrive. They’ve been poking at Marco [Benedetti]’s compensation and Marco [Benedetti] did not get a raise,” Hurley said.
“I have received a two percent increase in the four years I’ve been here which occurred, I think, in 2015 or 16, when we all received one and that’s it,” Benedetti added, “As John [Hurley] explained, when you look at the 990, they include all of our benefits, and so when you look at the total picture for me, I went up, but they’re also looking at a partial year versus a full year salary.”
The Griffin contacted Ring for comment on Hurley’s optimism and response to questions of executive compensation. Ring continued to advocate for SEIU workers’ concerns and position on the subject.
Abigail Wojcik, Mike Pesarchick, and Janelle Harb contributed reporting to this story.
The Griffin would like to acknowledge that in a Jan. 26 article entitled “Contract negotiations for facilities workers extended,” Chris Ring was quoted saying “We’ll tell them ‘You’re short [12 people]. That’s gotta be saving you money.” In The Griffin’s Feb. 7 interview with Hurley and Benedetti, and in the written statement from Hurley, campus administration states that since 2010 facilities staff has decreased from 67 to 62 employees.
From Hurley’s written statement: “Through retirements, the facilities staff has gone from 67 employees in 2010 to 62 employees currently, a reduction of only 7.5%. Over the same period, the college’s facilities space has been reduced by over 13% and the student, faculty and staff populations have all decreased by greater than 20%. There are simply fewer students and staff to service and less space to clean and maintain.”
Our print edition also featured the following section:
In an effort to provide further background and clarity on this subject, below are excerpts from two documents mentioned in the above article, that The Griffin obtained by the side of the negotiation who authored them.
Letter to Hurley on behalf of the Local 200 SEIU
“Now, the college wants to take away four percent of our retirement. We bargained for that percentage over a period of years from 1988 to 2002 and we gave back to get it. We have gone years without raises and have seen increases in health care and the cost of living. Our standard of living has declined.
Our people are loyal and dedicated. We work hard for the betterment of Canisius College and the students. The people that work here are the greatest asset that the college has. The Union has tried to assist the College in its time of need. The last two Union contracts were concessionary. We are not asking for more, but we cannot afford to take less.
The decrease in enrollment has been addressed by your initiative to reduce Canisius College tuition. This is a bold move that will likely be emulated by other schools in the area. We applaud the plan and hope for the desired effect.
We hope that there is more that we can do working together. Our people know the campus and buildings better than anyone. It is in our best interest to see the College succeed and prosper. We are willing to help in any way that we can. Thank you for your time and consideration.”
“THE SEIU CONTRACT AT CANISIUS: ANOTHER VIEW”
A written statement from John J. Hurley
“The administration of the college has been committed to open communications during the SEIU contract negotiation process since April of 2017. During this time, a series of proposals have been made to promote the ratification of a contract that would address the needs of workers while recognizing the financial challenges the college is facing. These challenges impact not just SEIU employees, but all Canisius College faculty and staff.
Seemingly lost in all of the discussion about pay, benefits and staffing is where the money comes from at Canisius. Ninety-two percent (92%) of the college’s operating revenues comes from students in the form of tuition, fees, room and board. If we have fewer students, we have less revenue and if we don’t reduce expenses, we need to increase the revenue per student, which would mean higher tuition, fees, room and board. There are no other hidden pots of money to pay operating costs at the college. By law, the college’s endowment cannot be invaded to fund ongoing operating costs. Thus, the administration must do everything possible to keep operating expenses down in an effort to keep students’ tuition, fees, room and board in check.”