Mills College Staff, Adjunct Faculty Ratify Precedent-Setting Contract with Northeastern University Following Destabilizing Merger
The hard-fought deal raises the floor for the college’s lowest-paid workers and provides important protections and improvements for adjunct faculty
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Oakland, CA: Heading into the holidays and final exams, staff and adjunct faculty at Mills College at Northeastern University had one more quick but important task to complete: Voting on a tentative agreement their contract negotiations team had reached with their new employer, the culmination of over two years of organizing in the face of uncertainty and upheaval. The vote was unanimous, and they will finish the year with a new contract – the first ever for staff, who voted by 95% to form their union with SEIU 1021 in March of 2020.
The staff contract achieves the members’ top priorities of raising the floor for the college’s lowest-paid employees, from $15 to $17 an hour for part-time workers and to $23.15 an hour for full-time workers, for whom there was previously no minimum wage at all. It also provides pay increases for other staff ranging from 5 to 15% depending on their current wages and guarantees a classification and compensation study that is likely to further raise wages in certain positions. These raises will help fill critical roles with high vacancy rates and reduce turnover.
“It’s been a long road to get to a contract,” said Aaron Oppenheim, coordinator of audio-visual services at Mills and a member of the SEIU 1021 collective bargaining team. “Our vote to unionize took place in March 2020, less than a week before COVID shut everything down. In spring 2021, Mills announced it was closing completely, then a few months later announced a merger with Northeastern University. All of this left staff confused and worried about our future. But Mills staff were committed to winning a contract, protecting our fellow workers in this uncertain time, and achieving our goal of raising the floor for the lowest-paid employees so they would be able to afford to live in one of the most expensive regions in America, and we are very proud to have done that.”
First union contracts are notoriously difficult to negotiate, as management is nearly always loath to share power with employees, and language covering everything from compensation to working conditions to grievance procedures must be drawn up and agreed to. But the extraordinary circumstances of Mills College made this one a nightmarish endeavor.
While Northeastern agreed to retain Mills’ workforce and recognize its unions, the acquisition caused significant delays and obstacles in collective bargaining for both staff and adjuncts. Ultimately, the SEIU 1021 bargaining team prevailed, winning an agreement that maintains the protections they won in their two previous contracts and that increases the minimum per-credit rate by 12.5% with further 3% increases in the second and third years of the contract.
However, reaching a deal with Northeastern that would move staff and adjunct faculty forward instead of backward required multiple rallies, marches, and escalating action. A strike vote was scheduled for November 9 if an agreement could not be reached before then. The tentative agreement was finally reached the night of November 8 after two days of marathon negotiations.
“We are pleased to be ending this year with a contract that guarantees that not only will we not be losing the job security that we fought so hard for in the past, but that we will also be getting ahead of inflation,” said Mills Associate Professor of Chemistry Camille Kaslan, who is on the SEIU 1021 labor-management committee. “The new agreement will reduce turnover, ensuring that our students continue to get the top-notch instruction they came to Mills for after the past couple of years of tumult. We are relieved to be able to get back to focusing our complete attention on what we do best and what we love: teaching, mentoring, and working directly with our students.”
SEIU Local 1021 represents nearly 60,000 employees in local governments, non-profit agencies, health care programs, and schools throughout Northern California, including seven private colleges and numerous community colleges. SEIU Local 1021 is a diverse, member-driven organization with members who work to make our cities, schools, colleges, counties, and special districts safe and healthy places to live and raise our families.