Union talks at UF still on hold


Published: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 12:21 a.m.

The collective bargaining agreements governing thousands of employees at the University of Florida have expired - and union officials still don't know where they'll go to negotiate new ones.

"This is a very murky situation," said Jon Reiskind, president of the UF chapter of United Faculty of Florida, which represents more than 1,800 faculty members. "We don't know when we'll be able to renegotiate the agreements, who we'll negotiate with or what rules will be applied to employees in the interim."

Union officials say efforts to negotiate new contracts have been lost in the ongoing reshuffle of power in the state university system - and they say employees' rights could get trampled as a result.

The faculty union's three-year contract with UF expired Tuesday - as did a contract between UF and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which represents more than 5,500 non-faculty employees.

Both unions had planned to negotiate new contracts with the Board of Governors, the statewide university governing body that was created by constitutional amendment in November. Faculty unions at the state's universities pushed for the creation of the new board after the Legislature abolished the old statewide Board of Regents, placing control of the universities in the hands of boards of trustees at each university.

UF's board of trustees refused to negotiate contracts with the unions earlier, citing concerns about which body would ultimately be given the power to enter into those contracts. Board members also said they wouldn't hold negotiations until employees held elections to determine which union, if any, they want to represent them.

When the new Board of Governors met for the first time this week, it voted to hand negotiating power to the trustees - but also reserved the right to take that power back. That leaves both UF and union officials unsure when new negotiations will begin. And the state officials in charge of moderating the dispute say they aren't sure either.

"Normally, we move quickly on these things, but right now there are lots of things in flux," said Steve Meck, general counsel for the state's Public Employee Relations Commission, which handles labor disputes.

PERC ruled Wednesday that it will hold a hearing to decide whether the Board of Governors or the board of trustees is the "successor employer" to the Board of Regents, and thus responsible for negotiating with the unions. But a date for the hearing has not been set, Meck said - partly because PERC has a backlog of similar requests from unions at other state universities in the same situation.

Union officials say that without contracts in place, the trustees may try to change university rules to chip away at tenure, intellectual property rights and other guarantees employees now hold.

"I'm not saying it's likely, but it has happened elsewhere," Reiskind said.

Board of trustees Chairman Marshall Criser declined to discuss any possible changes in detail, but said he was "substantially in agreement" with a statement on the issue released by UF President Charles Young earlier this week. In that statement, Young called accusations that the university intends to weaken tenure "shameless and without merit."

Both unions plan to hold elections in the near future - a move that could invoke state law blocking the university from making changes to personnel policy - at least while elections are ongoing. But before those elections can be held, they will have to be approved by PERC. And PERC may be far from rendering a decision on that matter.

"There are a lot of nuances and variables that have to be worked out here," said Meck. "It may take a while."

Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@gvillesun.com

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