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Talks in Oakland University faculty labor dispute expected to last through Friday night, union says

Charles E. Ramirez and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Negotiations in the labor dispute between Oakland University and its professors were slated to continue through Friday night as issues remained, the union representing faculty said.

Negotiations paused for a break around 4 p.m. Thursday after a "day with minimal progress," the union, the American Association of University Professors, Oakland University Chapter, said on its website.

"Language issues on the faculty tuition waiver and health care benefits remain key sticking points. The parties have exchanged proposals on the remaining economic issues but still no noteworthy progress has occurred."

The university earlier said an agreement could be near.

"The parties appear to be and should be close to a settlement," university officials said in a statement early Friday.

"University administrators look forward to resolving remaining issues today so that the campus community can focus its attention on the exciting start of a new school year."

University officials said the two main unresolved issues are health care costs and tuition for faculty's children at the college.

Both parties were slated to return at 7 p.m., the union said.

The union representing faculty has said while there are few issues remaining, those issues are "hugely important."

The strike began Thursday, the first day of classes, after the union representing 880 of the school's faculty members and university officials and mediators failed to reach a contract before the semester started. The contract expired Wednesday night.

Striking faculty members wave to motorists as they walk the picket line in front of the main entrance at Oakland University on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Oakland University said the two sides bargained for more than 16 hours Thursday and "the issues dividing them are minimal."

Most OU employees pay a health care premium of 10% while the faculty pays 5%, according to university's officials. The school's negotiators want parity, which would mean faculty's health care costs would increase $312 a year, starting in the second year of the contract, OU said. The increase would be offset by proposed salary increases, it said.  

The university said it has proposed a pay increase to all faculty of 5.25% over three years, but the union has rejected the raise. 

Union officials said the college's offer comes with a lowered salary offer. "The total effect on our members is unacceptable," they said in a statement on the union's website. "Salary increase offers from Oakland remain at less 2% a year, well below anything that can be considered cost of living."

Additionally, the dependents of faculty are able to get degrees at OU "at virtually no charge," according to the school's officials. They said the union wants the benefit extended indefinitely when students fail to complete classes and must retake courses. They also said all other OU employees are expected to pay for classes that are failed and retaken. 

The professors' union disagrees with the school's plan for the faculty tuition waiver. 

"This gift our faculty give one another is a crucial element of our agreement and our members have told us loud and clear that we must defend the right to provide that gift to one another," it said. "Oakland attempts to alter the language of this waiver have created problems where none existed and open the door to erosion of the contract clause. Oakland’s proposed is sloppy, vulnerable to misinterpretation, and reflective of their obtuse refusal to recognize the way the benefit was designed to work." 

However, the university said union negotiators decided to extend an illegal strike and ended the bargaining session.

On Thursday, the union said the college proposed professors take a substantial pay cut along with reductions in benefits and retirement contributions after OU raised tuition this year 4.2% following a 2020 tuition freeze.

"Oakland is working hard to provide a fair and equitable compensation package to faculty, but that package must also be fiscally responsible given unprecedented revenue losses this year," the university said. "Oakland is navigating an economic challenge in a way that still provides for increases to faculty compensation in every year of the proposed contract; in a way that does not touch the generous, above-market retirement package current faculty receive; and in a way that does not call for any cuts to academic programming."

Picketing continued until Friday afternoon, the union said.

Participants were joined on the line by students, alumni, faculty and students from Wayne State University as well as representatives from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and International Brotherhood of Fire Fighters, the group said. 

“I came here today to support the fight for decent wages, good benefits, and a comfortable retirement," Kurt Boardman of the IBEW said in a statement. "Those are the things that unite us and that we need to maintain good communities.”

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.