A gap in benefits?

By Michael Barnes

They clean the floors of dorms and campus facilities, they replace the broken knobs on doors, and when more than 400 graduating seniors arrive with their parents and extended family to celebrate commencement on May 13, they will have arrived hours earlier, at 6:30 a.m. to check for rain and plant signs directing visitors to the Old Main lawn.

They are the hourly staff of Macalester, members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 70, and they do the jobs that many of their superiors, and most of the student body, wouldn’t want to.

When the seniors walk across the platform that the union staff helped erect, the graduates will have obtained the one thing that eludes many of the union employees at Macalester: a college education.

What is more, a key benefit provided to most other staff at Macalester, but not included in the union contracts, will make it more difficult for the children of union employees to attain a college education.

The Dependent Tuition Assistance Program (DTAP) provides non-union staff an opportunity to send their children to Macalester and nearby colleges for significantly reduced tuition costs, as long as they are admitted.

It is easy to divide the staff at Macalester between non-union employees, mostly salaried staff, and union employees, hourly, wage-earning staff including custodians, maintenance staff and engineers, among others. Security and Caf’¨ Mac staff are contracted employees who work for private corporations.

Macalester has about 450 people working on staff, though many of those are less than full-time equivalent (FTE), according to Chuck Standfuss, former director of Human Resources. Of that total, there are 60 staff working under a union contract, all of whom work 40 hours a week, Standfuss said.

Standfuss, who has taken time off as director of Human Resources to lead the implementation of Macalester’s new administrative software platform, plans to return to the job, and still serves as the chief union negotiator for the college. As part of the responsibility, he will begin the process of renegotiating the college’s current three-year contract with the IUOE, which expires next spring.

Everyone who qualifies as a full-time or a three-quarters FTE employee, excluding union employees, receives the full benefits package Macalester offers. This includes standard benefits, including healthcare, vacation time and a retirement plan, as well as the education benefits that can offer staff members the opportunity to expand their horizons, and their kids a chance to save serious money by qualifying for and enrolling in a nearby liberal arts college.

Because there is little cost associated with adding an occasional extra body in a classroom, Macalester staff and faculty are permitted to take one free course every semester, for credit or as an audit, subject to supervisor and instructor approval.

“I encourage staff to take a class because you get a whole different view of the students outside of working with them,” Standfuss said.

While this benefit technically applies to union employees as well, they will only be compensated for lost wages if the class is job-related, and there are few if any Macalester courses that would qualify as job-related for a custodian or a maintenance staff member, according to staff supervisors. Since most classes fall during the workday, union employees would have to lose wages to earn credit for one course each semester.

Furthermore, supervisors are reluctant to let their workers take an hour or more off as often as three times every week, supervisors and union staff said.

“My guess is that supervisors would never approve [a class] if it was not job-related,” Associate Director of Human Resources Karen Bergstrom said. “What classes are related to a custodial job?”

Macalester participates in two programs with partner colleges that allow children of employees to receive significant grants, referred to as “tuition remission.”

Any college within the system can send eligible students, if they are accepted, to another college at the discounted rate. It is a very enticing deal for staff who have children.

Director of Individual Gifts Heather Riddle, who has a child of her own, cites the DTAP program as a selling point for the college.

“As someone who hires people at Macalester, it is a significant recruitment tool,” she said.

Schools that participate in the DTAP program include the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities (ACTC), which consists of Macalester, St. Thomas, the College of St. Catherine, Hamline University and Augsburg College, and 11 of the 14 members of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM), including Grinnell and Lawrence University.

In most of these cases, a staff member whose child is accepted into a partner college, or the home institution, can receive between 75 and 100 percent tuition remission, basically a free ride. The children would still be eligible for financial aid for additional costs.

Macalester willingly participates in this program, and paid out nearly $800,000 in benefits to dependents of staff and faculty at participating colleges, according to Vice-President of Finance David Wheaton. However, Macalester differs from most of the other schools in terms of who receives the DTAP benefit.

At the other four ACTC schools, and several of the ACM partners, the tuition remission benefits are offered to all staff, regardless of union affiliation, so long as they are full-time employees. Hamline and St. Thomas, for example, both contract with the same branch of the IUOE, Local 70. In their contracts, the union employees have won different benefits, but can at least take classes each semester at reduced tuition as well as receive tuition remission for their children at their respective institution.

However, it would likely take a change of policy for those benefits to be added to Macalester’s contract. Standfuss is in the business of negotiations, and for him, there is no such thing as a free benefit.

“As a negotiator I would never give anything away without an exchange, it sounds kind of harsh, but it’s give and take,” Standfuss said. “That’s what underlies most of the labor in America. I’m not trying to be the mean guy here-I’m just doing my job.”

“We’re giving up enough stuff,” said Bruce Wernberg, a staff member at the Local 70 IUOE office in Minneapolis. “What we’re trying to do is make things better for workers-how can you do that if you give up something to get something?”

Unless an order were to come down from upper management to offer the education benefits without a concession, Standfuss said he would stand by his principle that adding education benefits would require the loss of some other benefit.

“They would have to trade something else off against [the education benefit], maybe a wage or benefit concession,” Standfuss said.

Because adding this benefit would hurt employees in another area, it has been difficult for the union to advocate for a benefit that would serve only a few, at the expense of everyone, several custodial and maintenance staff said. Though the education benefits have been discussed in recent years, staff have not brought them to the table for negotiations, Standfuss said.

“If I could get some other benefit out of it, I would be glad to see it added,” said custodian Mark Benoit, whose children are out of school and who would not benefit from the addition of DTAP. “How do you make it fair for everybody?”

There is a perception among several of the staff interviewed for this story that they are not valued for their minds, and that there is an unspoken assumption that even if they could take classes, they would not be prepared to hand
le the rigor of a Macalester course. Conversations with management confirmed that in the minds of supervisors, the union employees at Macalester made a choice by not going to college, and that they have self-selected themselves for a less intellectually rigorous line of work.

However, Professor Peter Rachleff, a labor historian, takes a different position.

“These are bright, capable people…and I don’t have any doubt that they would be able to handle the work,” Rachleff said.

In his course on American Labor Radicalism, taught this semester, Rachleff invited an unemployed electrician to join the class and participate in discussions. He said that the students benefited greatly from the experience, and said that for other wage-earners and union employees, taking a class at Macalester would be a positive co-educational experience.

“It isn’t only a reward that would be given to the workers, but that the workers would have something to offer the students,” Rachleff said.

It hasn’t always been this way. Though no one on staff at Macalester or the Union could cite specifics, at some point in time the right to tuition breaks for staff and their children was negotiated away during a contract renewal period, Wernberg said.

“It broke my heart that they didn’t [keep] that benefit,” he said.

One student at Macalester, however, has preserved the history of this benefit in the story of her mother. Claire Deason ’06 represents the second generation of her family to graduate from Macalester.

“My mom went to Mac on a good financial aid package because her mom was a maid in Doty,” Deason said. According to Deason, her grandmother’s role as a maid earned her the opportunity to provide an affordable education at Macalester.

Kristine Holmgren ’75 was the first member of her family to graduate from high school, and after graduating from Macalester, went on to Princeton to receive a degree of divinity. She later served as Macalester’s first female Chaplain, she said.

“A lot of people took jobs [like my mother] because they knew it was part of their compensation.”

Deason did not learn of the loss of that benefit by union employees at Macalester until a conversation with The Mac Weekly.

“That’s unbelievable,” Deason said. “It goes along with the trend at Macalester [concerning finances], all of a sudden, everything is negotiable.”