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Building Stronger Relationships With Employee Unions

By AACC Staff

Veteran community college leaders provide advice for working with faculty and staff.

When it comes to driving reform on community college campuses, even the most ambitious of campus leaders know it’s virtually impossible to create change in a vacuum.

Effective leadership is all about relationships. And, as AACC Associate Editor Ellie Ashford reports in a recent story on Community College Daily, one of the most critical relationships is the one between leaders and their employees, especially in regions that have powerful employee unions.

What are some strategies for new college presidents working to establish stronger relationships with staff and unions? In the following excerpt, Ashford offers advice from veteran college presidents who have found success.

A new president needs to establish legitimacy as quickly as possible, says Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College (MCC) in Michigan.

“One way to accelerate that legitimacy is by working closely with the unions. Closing them out will only backfire,” he says.

Even when when doing all the right things, a president should expect that there will still be conflicts at times, says Jacobs, who negotiates with nine separate bargaining units representing MCC’s 2,000 employees.

One challenging issue he dealt with stemmed from a state law enacted a couple of years ago requiring all community college staff – no matter their pay grade – to contribute 20 percent of their salary to their health benefit costs.

Instead of separate health plans for each union, the MCC leadership and unions agreed on a single health plan for everybody. That approach not only saved the college money, he says, it was also more equitable and provided better benefits for employees at the lowest salary levels.

A delicate topic

In Connecticut, union negotiations are carried out by the state government. Gena Glickman, president of Manchester Community College, recounts a period when contract negotiations were breaking down and all community colleges were directed to warn union representatives that there might be layoffs.

Employees still had a year to go before anyone would be let go, and there was a chance that the layoffs would be rescinded – they were, eventually – but it was a difficult situation nonetheless.

“We were looking at positions, not people, but there were real people attached to these positions,” Glickman says. “We worked with the union to do it in the most respectful way possible.”

A president is responsible for a culture of respect that is in the best interest of students and in the best interest of the employees in a college.

With input from the union, the college agreed to tell staff about the potential layoffs on a Thursday to give people a chance to take a long weekend.

“A president is responsible for a culture of respect that is in the best interest of students and in the best interest of the employees in a college,” Glickman says.

Changing to merit pay

In Oregon, Roberto Gutierrez, president of Klamath Community College, was able to leverage his strong relationship with the faculty union to gain approval of a merit pay system. Beginning next year, he says, “all raises will be based on merit and performance, rather than seniority.”

There was some resistance to merit pay among faculty, and the statewide Oregon Education Association had some concerns, Gutierrez says. After a few late-night negotiations, the union leadership saw the proposal as a way to secure pay raises and did the heavy lifting to get faculty to accept it. In the end, the merit pay plan was ratified by a 95 percent vote.

Gutierrez credits that support to the groundwork undertaken since he was named president just over two years ago, including the implementation of a shared governance model, improved communications, a new evaluation process and a climate of transparency.

Also critical was KCC’s use of “interest-based bargaining,” which Gutierrez describes as focusing on the issues that need to be addressed and working as a team to resolve them. In contrast, the old style of negotiations is positional, with the president and faculty concentrating on defending their positions.

With the interest-based process, “you arrive at a solution together.”

“If we just focus on doing the correct thing for people – not being naive, but being fair and transparent – in the end people will pick up on this,” Gutierrez says. “At the center of this is trust. We’re not just going through the motions, we’re really listening.”

Open communications

The key to good relationships with unions is “good, open communications,” says Ray Di Pasquale, president of the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI).

He meets with the leaders of each of the three unions on campus – representing faculty, professional staff and support staff – every six weeks. At the meetings, which sometimes go on as long as two hours, he briefs them on what’s going on at CCRI and on federal and state issues that affect the college, while the union leaders bring up any issues they have.

Di Pasquale stresses to be especially transparent about budgets.

“Make sure the unions understand where the money comes and how you’re spending those dollars,” he says, adding, “You can save yourself a lot of wear and tear and save a lot of time by including the unions in everything that goes on in the college.” The result is “a strong, healthy relationship with minimal grievances.”

For more advice, including the importance of trust in faculty relationships, don’t miss the full story on AACC’s Community College Daily.

AACC Staff

contributed to this report.

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