Montana unions criticize pay gap at state universities

At a recent regents’ meeting of the Montana University System, union leaders and one state senator criticized the growing pay gap between employees and administrators at the state’s public universities.

At the meeting,, the regents approved 11 collective bargaining agreements between Montana’s public universities and unions representing university staff.

State Senator Jim Keane said that unless administrators begin to address the wage disparity between top administrators and university staff, their state funding could be affected.

Jim Reardon of the Laborers International Union of North America said that the salary of some of his members is so low that they can’t afford to live in the college towns where they work.

“I don’t know if I’m disappointed or disgusted with the continued failure of the (Montana University System) to recognize the necessity of those people who do the work that matters,” said Reardon. “We talk about across-the-board increases, but 2 percent for someone who makes $10 an hour doesn’t add up with what someone makes at the top.”

One of the contracts that the regents approved was between the Montana Public Employees Association, AFL-CIO and the University of Montana.

The contract provides for $0.46 per hour pay increase for classified employees in the first year and a 2.25 percent increase plus a $0.12 an hour base pay increase in the second year.

A classified university worker making $36,060 a year, the mean average salary of a worker in the State of Montana, would see a raise of $950 in the first year of the contract.

Top administrators at the university will also receive raises. University of Montana President Royce Engstrom, who along with his counterpart at Montana State are the highest paid public officials in the state, will receive a raise of $6,763 a year that will increase his annual salary to $296,229.

When Engstrom was hired in 2010, The Missoulian reported that in addition to his salary, Engstrom would receive an additional $50,000 a year for ten years if he stays at UM for at least five years.

Workers at UM have not fared so well. A survey of members by MPEA found that 30 percent of its classified employee members worked two or more jobs.

Two years ago, they received two one percent raises for each year of their contract plus an additional $500.

When negotiations on a new contract began, UM workers were looking for a big wage boost to make up for lost ground. They ended up agreeing to much less.

“In the scheme of things, what we were hoping for was a 4-5 percent increase,” said Darlene Samson, an MPEA member to Montana Kamin. “Personally, I think any raise is good, but, in light of economics, you can’t buy a loaf of bread for 46 cents and you can’t buy a carton of milk for 46 cents.”

If the Legislature earlier this year hadn’t earmarked $19 million for raises for university staff, there’s a good chance that the workers would not have received any raise at all.

In April, President Engstrom announced that the university was facing a budget shortfall and ordered departments to develop plans for reducing the number of courses available and eliminating jobs.

That brought a response from students and faculty who blamed the shortfall on Engstrom’s mismanagement.

At the same time, that instructional cutbacks were being planned, Engstrom hired a vice-president for integrated communications with an annual salary of $147,000 a year.

The new vice-president will be responsible for managing news and information about the university.

The 11 collective bargaining agreements approved by the regents are not the last of the agreements that will need their approval.

Unions that are still negotiating contracts objected to the idea that the raises approved by the regents are “normal raises” that set a pattern for other union contracts.

“Many of our contracts are still out – they’re still in bargaining,” said Marco Ferro, public policy director with MEA-MFT, which represents faculty and other university staff, to the regents. “I hear the term ‘normal raise,’ and I’m not sure everyone is agreeing on that. That’s still happening at the bargaining level.”

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