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The Union Education Trust is a generous and equitable employment benefit unparalleled in the modern working world, but it is not something the State of Ohio gives their employees out of kindness. It was members’ support of their Union negotiations that brought UET into existence and it will be their continued support of their bargaining team that allows the Union to maintain the benefit.
The Impact of Union Solidarity
Thirty years ago, OCSEA’s elected leadership had the vision of an education benefit for members that would ensure employment security – looking further than job security. The vision was the easy part. With the support of their membership behind them, the Union-elected bargaining team then had to negotiate with management to make this forward-thinking benefit part of the labor-union contract.
“The union could guarantee you employment, but the realization was that there would come a day that we couldn’t unless you had some education,” said Ron Alexander, retired president of OCSEA who led the negotiating team for many years.
“Your union will fight for you, but jobs change and people have to adapt to them and sometimes that takes education,” Alexander said. “OCSEA has always been a big advocate for lifelong learning.”
That 1997 OCSEA negotiating team was successful: The groundbreaking program guaranteed in the updated Article 37 of the contract was called the Workforce Development Fund (WD) and featured benefits that previously were only found at a few large private corporations.
More than 25 years later, that negotiated benefit looks dramatically different – and much better – as the Union Education Trust (UET). But like the first iteration of the education benefit, all the subsequent improvements were hard won through negotiations with the state.
“We’ve negotiated an increase to education benefits in every contract,” OCSEA President Chris Mabe said. “Collective bargaining enables the union to set the bar and then raise it.”
Focusing on education and training for OCSEA members goes back even further.
An Ambitious Beginning
Known by its article number in the contract, Article 37 – first called “Training/Continuing Education” but now updated to “Employee Training and Development” – was negotiated in the first OCSEA collective bargaining in 1986. The objective was to remove politics from union members getting approval for training.
“The idea started with some of our members wishing to secure their GED, which helped them attain job security,” said Kathy Gersper, OCSEA secretary/treasurer. “It took several meetings with our labor-relations officer to negotiate a win-win situation.”
“Anything can get negotiated if both sides want to do what is best for their employees, which in turn benefits the state.”
Article 37 has evolved through each contract as the union has pushed for education benefits for its members. Several changes in 1994 set the stage for future training initiatives. A joint pilot program in the Ohio Department of Administrative Services for bargaining unit employees looked at the feasibility of an education and development program.
The 1994 contract included the statement that “Employee training and development is regarded as an investment rather than a cost,” declaring that both the state and OCSEA value educating employees.
An Unprecedented Program
In the 1997-2000 contract, the Workforce Development fund was established for workforce training initiatives. WD offered eligible state bargaining unit employees $1,000 in pre-paid tuition vouchers. Most importantly, there was no need for supervisory approval to use the funds. The program solved two barriers for OCSEA members to an education benefit: access and funding. It was a gigantic step forward in moving from job security to employment security.
“Workforce Development was one of OCSEA’s biggest feats, even to this day,” Alexander said. “It was the best thing I ever did with the union.”
“So much good came out of that: So many people have come up to me and said ‘If it wasn’t for the education fund, I wouldn’t have my associate’s degree or my bachelor’s degree.’” Alexander said. “It’s been good for a lot of people.”
Education Benefits in Danger
Workforce Development was a remarkable win for OCSEA but it was far from perfect. The fund was built with contributions from both the state and bargaining unit members: the state put in a dime an hour while employees contributed a nickel an hour. This was an unprecedented and unique funding approach where the union members invested their own money and contributed 33% of the money to fund the negotiated education benefit that was administered by the employer. Perhaps the most challenging piece was that the program was administered by the state. WD was managed by a joint labor-management steering committee, which was cumbersome and bureaucratic.
“Eventually management said ‘If you want it, you’ll have to manage it from now on,’” Gersper said.
When the state came to the table to negotiate a new contract in 2005, the management proposed eliminating Workforce Development.
The Union Fights—and Wins
OCSEA’s negotiating team proposed something entirely different: A trust that would be maintained by the union. Instead of agreeing to the state’s proposal of eliminating the education benefit, OCSEA wanted to broaden it and strengthen it.
“We said ‘No problem.” OCSEA took it over and redesigned it as UET,” Gersper said.
That led to the establishment of the union-administered Union Education Trust. The Trust was initially funded through employer contributions of $19 per employee per month. That rate of contribution was renegotiated in the 2015-2018 contract when it was increased to $21 per employee per month.
Today’s UET features a variety of robust benefits that ensure all eligible state bargaining unit employees have access to programs that meet their educational needs, whether that is obtaining a degree, studying technology, participating in a day-long seminar, or exploring career interests with the FOCUS online tool. Tens of thousands of eligible bargaining unit employees have participated in UET.
“UET has been an integral piece in helping people progress in their career,” Mabe said. “We are still one of the only unions to have an education trust that is negotiated and guaranteed.”