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Union protests merit pay for MnSCU chiefs

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MnSCU's offices in St. Paul
The offices of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

One of the largest unions at the Minnesota State Colleges and University system is protesting the system's decision to award performance bonuses to its college presidents at a time when clerical workers, landscapers and janitors are being let go.

      While administration officials defend the policy as important to retaining the system's top leaders, the $3,000 to $15,000 bonuses irritate leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

      "It all comes down to ethics," said Carroll "Bird" Partridge, president of the AFSCME union at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. "Somehow we need to let them know that ethically it isn't right."

      MnSCU spokeswoman Melinda Voss said the performance incentives are also in the employment contracts for the presidents of the system's 32 colleges and universities because the system's trustees wanted to reward those who met certain goals.

      "It's especially important to reward those who achieve their performance goals during these difficult economic times," she said. "The system must retain its top-notch leaders."

      Besides, the system has to pay incentives because they're in the presidents' contracts. 

"We don't hate our presidents, we don't hate the administration. It's all about the timing."

"If they met their performance incentives, they are due this money," Voss said.       

Union leaders said bonuses have been part of the compensation for the system presidents since at least 1999, but the union hasn't complained about them before. 

This is different, they said, because at least 60 union members have recently been laid off and the union agreed to no raises in its two-year contract that started July 1.

      "We don't hate our presidents, we don't hate the administration. In most places they do a very good job," said Chas Martin, a business representative for AFSCME. "It's all about the timing."

      Partridge and other union leaders said they plan let the Board of Trustees know how upset they are when the board meets Wednesday, and they may ask the trustees to take the money back. 

The system's records indicate AFSCME represents about 3,760 of the system's employees, only the unions representing the college and university faculties are larger.

      Martin estimated that altogether MnSCU will pay out about $300,000 in bonuses in the next few weeks. Voss said the bonuses had not yet been paid so she could not reveal specifics about how much was being paid out, and to which presidents.

      Voss said Chancellor James McCormick will determine the amount each president gets under the program depending on how well they met various goals, including increasing the number of students in science, technology, engineering and math classes; increasing retention rates among underrepresented populations of students and increasing the amount of customized training their institutions offer to businesses in their areas.

      Voss said the presidents did not get increases in their base salaries from the past academic year to the current one. Most other employees in the system are not eligible for similar merit pay, she said, because their bargaining units wouldn't agree to it.

      When the Board of Trustees approved their annual budget in June, it called for about 550 jobs in the system to be left open or eliminated due to declines in funding. It also raised tuition by about 3 percent.

      Partridge, a maintenance worker, said MnSCU employees have been trying to find ways to reduce costs ever since. It makes the performance bonuses more offensive, he said.

      "It makes you wonder why you were working so hard to save money," he said. "It's kind of a kick in the butt."