By Brittany Dekorte
Over the summer, Washtenaw Community College and the Office of Professional Technical Association discussed new contracts, but were unable to come to an agreement.
OPTA union members fill a variety of support roles at the college: student services, financial services, child care and clerical roles. Crystal Sims, who is the head of the union group, stated there are over 100 members in the union, and members range in length of service to less than a year to over 30 years of experience.
According to WCC’s Education Association’s official blog, OPTA union members were only offered a 1.1 percent per hour raise, which is lower than the cost of living inflation from 2016. According to information given by OPTA leaders, wages rank in the lower end compared to most Michigan community colleges. In an emailed statement from the colege’s marketing and communications department, though, the college claims that the total compensation package for OPTAs “is in the top tier for employee compensation when compared to employees in similar positions at other area colleges.”
Around 40 people came to the board of trustees meeting, on Sept. 19. to support the OPTA. To show their support, attendees wore orange shirts and ribbons. The color orange was chosen because “It’s bright,
noticeable,” said Sims. Faculty members have also been wearing orange ribbons outside of the meeting.
Many in the room were upset at the beginning of the meeting, when board chair Diana McKnight-Morton immediately called for the closed door bargaining section of the meeting to be
moved before the public comment.
Trustee David DeVarti called for public comment to be held first, “out of respect for those in attendance,” and was the only vocal opposition when it was put to a vote.
In a statement from the college, associate vice president of marketing and communications Brendan Prebo told the Voice in an emailed statement that the college and the OPTA have been working on a new contract while honoring the terms and conditions of their previous contract. In June, the two sides reached a tentative agreement on a new contract, however this agreement was rejected by the OPTA membership, according to Prebo.
David Fitzpatrick, the faculty president at WCC, spoke at the meeting after the closed door session. He said he had come to speak on behalf of the OPTA, since he is not involved in the negotiations and can talk publically about them.
“When I spoke at the last meeting I was given both private and public assurance that we would try to settle this quickly, and that you wanted to give the OPTs an admittedly unspecified payoff. At the next day’s bargaining, they encountered a changed negotiation team without notice, and with it a very different negotiating environment. They felt ambushed.”
Anne Garcia, who teaches behavioral science at the college, also spoke up in defense of the OPTA in the public comment.
“When I was first hired into my first or second full time job, in 1977, I was given $10 an hour. In 1977, my rent was about $50 a month if I shared an apartment, and it was $200 if I had my own apartment. I can promise you in 1977, $10 was enough to live on. But I’m here to tell you, it’s not 1977 anymore, I’m almost certain it’s not. And I’m here to tell you you’re not paying the OTPs enough money. And if you’ve forgotten what it’s like, I urge you to spend six months on the salary being offered to them and to see what your quality of life is like.”
Prebo’s statement said that the school is eager to come to an agreement with the Office Professional Technical Association on a new contract. “We support the OPTA and the critical work they do to help ensure the smooth operation of the college to the benefit of our students,” he stated in an email.
For now, these workers are still at the college, under a contract extension that does not guarantee any improvement in pay or benefits. Negotiations are as of now continuing, and the OPTA has filed a fact finding motion. Those involved with the negotiations cannot comment on them, due to guidelines in the bargaining process.
“It’s time to put this to an end. It’s time to pay them a living wage. We have OPTs with college degrees who are making $33,000 a year. This is unconscionable,” said Fitzpatrick.