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UFF concerned as trustees’ decision looms

For months, faculty union president Roy Weatherford has been uneasy.

His union’s collective bargaining agreement with the university ends Jan. 7. When it expires, Weatherford is worried that years of gains made by the faculty through bargaining will be lost, and that it will basically have to start all over.

Furthermore, Weatherford has been worried about the USF Board of Trustees, which will also become the faculty’s official employer Jan. 7. And because of elusiveness about the fate of USF employees, as well as other concerns, Weatherford and other faculty members have long shown a distrust for the BOT.

But, following the BOT’s publication of its 197-page agenda for Thursday’s meeting, all the months of care and concern finally came to a boiling point.

Weatherford announced in a press statement Monday the union’s opposition to a set of emergency rules proposed by the BOT. Those rules, which are up for vote Thursday, address some of the important issues of the collective bargaining agreement. They will, on Jan. 7, in effect take over for the collective bargaining agreement. Weatherford will hold a press conference today to expound upon the release.

Monday Weatherford said hostilities over bargaining now seem inevitable.

“We have been trying not to be confrontational and negative and hostile ,and we’re finally reaching the point where it doesn’t seem that the university has any intention of working with us and seems to be assuming the contract (will be) destroyed,” Weatherford said. “Evidently, the board is charging ahead with the assumption that (the faculty will be) governed by rules instead of a contract.”

Michael Reich, media relations director for USF, said Weatherford’s characterizations are unfair, and that the administration wants what is best for the faculty.

“I think his fears are unfortunate,” Reich said. “Again, I would reiterate that the university fully hopes and expects we will have an amicable collective bargaining process.”

Reich said the administration is following the collective bargaining process but can do little at the present. He said it will not be known until after Jan. 7 whether the BOT, the newly created Board of Governors or some other agency will be the bargaining agent or whether the faculty union will even continue to represent the faculty.

Reich said there are no bad intentions toward the faculty.

“We have every intention of following (the bargaining) process,” he said.

A point of contention between Weatherford and Reich is the meaning of the BOT’s emergency rules. These rules will affect, among other things, faculty compensation, employment, grievances, misconduct, tenure and academic freedom.

Many involve the same issues that have been discussed in-depth for more than a year since the start of the Sami Al-Arian controversy.

Weatherford’s statement makes it clear that he thinks the new rules will negatively impact faculty rights.

“These rules would conflict with the faculty’s contract at many points and, if implemented, would violate the contract and undermine faculty rights,” the release said.

The statement, which also questions the BOT’s remote Lakeland campus venue for Thursday’s meeting, said the decision to label the rules “emergency” and allow for their immediate Jan. 7 implementation is a sign the board does not want to bargain.

“Since they would not be needed if the contract were extended, it appears they intend to let the contract lapse,” the release said.

Reich said he feels this assessment is wrong. He said the rules are being implemented simply to provide a mechanism to keep the employment procedures working after Jan. 7 until a new agreement can be reached. The rules, he said, will have a lifetime of just 90 days.

“After Jan. 7, we’ll be able to create permanent rules,” Reich said.

The rules, Reich said, are taken directly from the current wording of the collective bargaining agreement. That includes, he said, the academic freedom clause.

“The bottom line is the faculty are not losing anything,” Reich said.

Weatherford does not agree. His release said that the new policies will undermine academic freedom and the union.

“The definition of academic freedom is exactly the same as in the collective bargaining agreement, which I should add, the union negotiated,” Reich said. “If he doesn’t like these rules, (those are the ones he negotiated).”

Reich said there are several unknowns in the situation. Included in those is what will happen should a bargaining agreement not be in place after the 90-day life of the emergency rules ends. But, for now, Reich continues to say the university has no legal authority to negotiate.

Weatherford also said the future is unclear. He said he feels the union will eventually be recognized as the bargaining agent, but he isn’t sure how much damage will be done by the time that happens.

“If they succeed in breaking the continuity of the contract, then we’ll have to start all over trying to get back the things that it’s taken 20 years to get,” Weatherford said.