The final regularly scheduled contract negotiation session between the Graduate Employees’ Organization and the University concluded yesterday with both sides still unable to agree on major contract terms like salary increases and health care benefits for graduate student employees.

Although yesterday’s bargaining session was the final meeting before the union’s contract expires on March 1, GEO members, which includes all graduate student instructors on campus, voted Wednesday night to extend its current contract until March 17. The move gives negotiators additional time to agree on contract terms and delays the possibility of a strike by GEO members.

Both sides also agreed to hold twice-weekly negotiations – on Mondays and Thursdays – when they return from spring break on March 3.

One of the sticking points in the negotiations was the extent of the salary increases planned for the next three years.

In response to GEO’s latest salary proposal, which called for a 9-percent increase in the first contract year, followed by increases in the final two years that matched changes in the cost of living, University negotiators proposed yesterday a 3-percent increase for the first year, a 2.5-percent increase for the second year and a 2.25-percent increase for the third year.

“We think that they are a realistic response to the needs the University has to remain competitive with respect to graduate student instructors,” said Jeff Frumkin, senior director of Academic Human Resources.

Frumkin, an assistant provost who has participated in contract negotiations with the GEO and the Lecturers’ Employee Organization since 1998, didn’t participate in negotiations yesterday but spoke on behalf of the University’s bargaining team.

While GEO officials said their salary proposals were based on cost of living figures found on the University’s Office of Financial Aid website, the University’s wage proposals were determined by “an internal consultation process with the leadership of the University,” Frumkin said.

In December, GEO representatives submitted their first salary proposal – 9-percent increases for all three years of their contract – but the University countered those with 2-percent increases over three years.

“We still remain very far apart on the issue of salaries,” said Colleen Woods, the lead negotiator for GEO and GSI in the history department. “Although they’ve made some concessions in the salaries article, from what we heard from our members last night, they’re not enough.”

Frumkin said he thought the University’s latest salary proposal was a step in the right direction for both parties.

“The proposal we made today will help bring us closer together, and I think it brought us closer to the union’s (salary proposal),” Frumkin said.

GEO negotiators lowered the proposed salary increases in the final two years of the contract from 9 percent to cost of living increases in hopes of reaching an agreement with the University. The concessions were also an effort to ensure that graduate student salaries keep pace with increases in inflation.

By asking for an undetermined number, the union hoped to settle on a figure that was dictated by the economic situation of the next few years.

“We would prefer to see language that didn’t peg us to a number as much as it acknowledged keeping pace with the rate of inflation or a cost of living adjustment,” Woods said. “We would like to ensure that our salary keeps pace with inflation rather than pick a number.”

A 2.3-percent cost of living increase was determined for 2007, and officials will announce next year’s increase in October 2008.

At the next round of bargaining on March 3, Woods said GEO representatives plan to resubmit their previous proposal of a 9-percent salary increase the for first year followed by cost of living adjustments for the second and third years.

In addition to their stalemate on salary increases, the University’s negotiating team and GEO also remain far apart on the health care proposals the union wants for its members.

The union originally proposed expansions of health care coverage that gave its members improved dental, vision, physical therapy and mental health care, while also making health care coverage available for low-fraction employees – GSIs who work fewer than 20 hours a week.

The University rejected all of GEO’s health care proposals in January. The union responded to the University’s rejection by resubmitting its original health care proposals in the Feb. 14 bargaining session, only to have the University again reject GEO’s health care proposals yesterday.

The University’s bargaining team says current health care coverage is satisfactory, and it’s unlikely they’ll make any major changes to the existing coverage.

“The University’s response as far as the health care was essentially to continue the same proposals we have had with one exception,” Frumkin said.

The one exception was that both sides agreed to freeze co-pays on doctor’s visits at the current amount that employees are responsible for.

Woods said GEO’s negotiating team would continue demanding changes to health care because it believes the University has the means to cover many of the things the organization is asking for.

“For the University to expand health care benefits to people working at a low-fraction does not cost the University very much in terms of their overall budget,” Woods said. “It’s very inexpensive for them to do that. We are disappointed that they haven’t taken that proposal as seriously as we would like them to.”

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