College Support Employees Find New Voice in Union


by Mary Ellen Flannery

For too many years, employees of Lake Tahoe Community College relied on a handshake and the goodwill of administrators to get a fair deal around pay, benefits, and job security.

Now, they’ve got a union—and the strong, well-organized voice that comes with it, said Paul Neves, the newly elected president of the newly formed union of Lake Tahoe education support professionals (ESPs). “We needed backing,” he said. “We haven’t had a cost-of-living raise in four years—and the discrepancies just keep getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger.”

Especially during these economically troubled times, as jobs are lost and budgets slashed on campuses across the country, a union and a collectively bargained contract can be a very good thing for employees. “We’re going to have the support of professional negotiators, who know the laws and have done this kind of work for years and years. We have really high hopes,” said Neves, who has been a maintenance technician at the small college for 11 years.

(And after all that time, he still earns less than less-experienced colleagues who work for the local K-12 district, the local utility, or city government. In fact, Lake Tahoe Community College’s employees earn bottom-level wages compared to other community college in California, even as they live in a community where the average house price is a whopping $937,501.)

About 15 percent of NEA’s Higher Education members are support professionals, so Neves and his colleagues will be joining a robust union that offers them support in winning professional pay and working conditions, as well as professional development and leadership training.

This particular unit at Lake Tahoe, which consists of ESPs in various roles, including maintenance workers, child development teachers, academic librarians, fiscal service and information technology workers, admissions officers and others, represents about 62 employees. They hope to sign their first contract in the spring of 2012.

Salary likely will be an issue, but job security will be equally important. Last year, three Lake Tahoe employees lost their jobs—“and (the board) didn’t even follow board policy in doing it,” Neves said. As California’s budget problems only get worse, it’ll be important to have negotiated systems and protections in place.

This year, the state’s community colleges lost $300 million from their budgets; next year it’ll likely be worse. Best-case scenarios project 6.4 percent across-the-board cuts (and that’s best case!) The worst outlooks call for severe cuts of 14 percent or more. Under any scenario, layoffs may be likely.

But a good contract will provide for a systemic approach to “reductions in force or RIFs,” which are layoffs resulting from budget cuts. “Reduction in force language will be important,” Neves said.

It also will be important to work on job descriptions, he said. “We have a lot of people working out of their classifications…groundskeepers going up to fix the roofs. And they’re not compensated for it. As a small college, sometimes you have to do stuff like that, but some things are just not right.”

But none of these issues will be new to the staff from the California Teachers Association, which will assist the new unit. Fifty-five percent of all NEA ESPs say they are sometimes or often asked to do working outside of their job description. Thirty-three percent say they would like improved wages.

“It was time,” explained Diane Lewis, a library technician and online instructor, to the CCA Advocate. Lewis, whose e-mail address has Norma Rae in it, after the famous South Carolina factory organizer, added, “Our salaries are the lowest in the system and we want a real contract that offers security, protection and strength.”

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