The Montana Board of Regents approved 11 union ratified agreements Thursday after discussing the growing wage gap between those at the top of the Montana University System and those at the bottom.
If compensation gets too far out of balance, one state senator cautioned regents, it could make it difficult for the Montana University System to secure future funding from the state.
“You need to address those issues of compensation,” said Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte. “Compensation has the ability down the road to have a direct impact on the money the university system gets.”
Before approving the labor agreements, giving a roughly 2.25 percent increase and $250 to state workers effective Oct. 1, regents heard from state employees and union leaders who remain locked in negotiations.
“Many of our contracts are still out – they’re still in bargaining,” Marco Ferro, the public policy director with MEA-MFT, told 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.”
In approving the 11 union ratified agreements, regents approved raises for workers in a number of unions, including the Montana Public Employees Association, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Jay Reardon, the field representative for public employees in Laborers Local 1686, said he represents workers at the bottom of the pay rung, and asked regents to consider the essential day-to-day tasks they perform.
“I don’t know if I’m disappointed or disgusted with the continued failure of the MUS 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.”
Reardon said many of those he represents can’t afford to live in Montana’s college towns where they work. He said $10 an hour isn’t a living wage in Missoula, Bozeman or Billings.
Reardon asked the Montana University System to set a standard for others to follow.
“I’d encourage you to look at those facts and figures,” he said. “We have issues on the table, and we’re still there, and what’s being offered right now is not acceptable.”
Regents were cautioned not to engage in labor negotiations at Friday’s meeting. But they were free to discuss the perceived compensation gap brought up by others.
Student Regent Zachary Rogala suggested regents revisit the wage issue and find new ways to retain faculty and staff while meeting student needs. Regent Todd Buchanan also urged regents to pick up the issue during the impending planning session, saying it could present new opportunities, since new regents have been appointed.
“We have the ability to move around money in our own budget,” Buchanan said. “It’s up to us to consider ways to find the tools to do that. This board has shown a will to discuss alternatives.”