AUGUSTA, Maine — Faculty at several University of Maine campuses are participating in illegal work stoppages, according to a complaint filed by the University of Maine System with the Maine Labor Relations Board.

The “Prohibited Practice Complaint,” filed March 8, is the most recent chapter in the ongoing contract dispute between UMS and the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, or AFUM, which represents approximately 1,200 full-time faculty members on the system’s seven campuses. The faculty have been working without a contract since June 30, 2011. So far, all negotiations and a mediation have failed to produce a conclusion.

In an effort to put pressure on the system to accept a 4.5 percent cost-of-living increase for faculty, which a fact-finding panel appointed by the labor relations board recommended in November, AFUM chapters at the different campuses have voted to adopt what’s known as a “work-to-rule” arrangement.

“Work-to-rule” means faculty members will continue teaching and abiding exactly by the terms of their contracts, but will no longer participate in activities deemed voluntary, according to Ed Collum, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern Maine and the president of the USM-AFUM chapter.

AFUM, like many public-sector unions, is prohibited by law from striking.

Collom said Wednesday the complaint UMS has filed with the MLRB is based on a “fundamental disagreement” about what activities faculty are required to participate in under their contract and what ones are voluntary.

That question, which is the heart of UMS’ complaint, doesn’t have an easy answer, according to Marc Ayotte, executive director of the MLRB.

“I don’t think we have any precedent determining whether the things are or are not mandatory subjects of bargaining, and that will be an issue in this case,” Ayotte said Wednesday.

While there may be precedent in K-12 education, this is the first time Ayotte can remember the issue being raised in regard to the job duties of faculty at higher education institutions in Maine.

The AFUM has 20 days to respond to the complaint. Collom is confident the faculty members who have participated in “work-to-rule” actions are not breaking the law.

“Work-to-rule actions, or inactions, are all targeted toward voluntary services and activities. Nothing we’re doing is violating contractual provisions or state law,” he said.

Tracy Bigney, UMS’ chief human resources and organization development officer, disagrees.

The existing union contract says required job duties for faculty consist of “teaching, research, University and public service.”

“University and public service” is a broad term, “but it means their work is not just teaching courses and doing research,” Bigney said Wednesday “Their participation in all these other aspects at the university are expected. It’s not something extra.”

The university system is not saying faculty have no right to participate in “work-to-rule” actions, only that the ones some faculty have been participating in — such as refusing to participate in admissions committees or in degree program reviews — are illegal under the current contract, Bigney said.

“We respect the right of faculty to express their views about [‘work-to-rule’],” Bigney said. “What is different here is we believe some of the actions they are taking … really go beyond what is appropriate under ‘work-to-rule’ and constitute a work stoppage or slowdown.”

Bigney said out of the seven universities, faculty at USM have been most active in “work-to-rule” actions. USM faculty — the bargaining unit consists of 333 faculty members, 89 percent of whom are members — voted to adopt “work-to-rule” in January.

That doesn’t surprise Collom, who said “morale is very low” among USM’s faculty.

“It’s a case where we have some activist faculty members on campus here, and they are very serious about seeing this contract settled and moving on,” he said.

The union’s original request for cost-of-living increases was 4 percent for each year of a two-year contract, for a combined 8 percent increase. The university system countered with an offer to increase salaries by 0.5 percent for each of two years, for a combined 1 percent.

The fact-finding panel appointed by the MLRB determined that the union’s requested 8 percent increase over two years would represent $8 million over two years, or a 0.077 percent increase in the approximately $102 million the university system currently budgets for compensation. The panel determined UMS’ proposal would represent about a $1 million increase over two years, for a 0.0096 percent increase in the budget for compensation. UMS’ total operating budget is approximately $520 million.

The panel recommended a middle-ground increase of 1.5 percent the first year and 3 percent the second year, for a combined 4.5 percent increase. One member of the three-person panel disagreed, however, and filed a minority report recommending a 0.7 percent increase in each of the two years, for a combined total of 1.4 percent.

The union has not received a salary increase since the 2008-09 school year, according to the fact-finding panel’s report.

Collom said the union was willing to accept the fact-finding panel’s 4.5-percent recommendation, but the university system still opposed the increase. Bigney said financial constraints — including a tuition freeze and being flat-funded by the Legislature — prevented the system from accepting the fact-finding panel’s recommendations.

The next step in the negotiating process is the appointment of an arbitration panel, which can make binding decisions on everything except salary, benefits and pensions, Bigney said.

And if arbitration doesn’t work?

“If it goes that far, the law says after the arbitration decisions and recommendations are received, then there would be further negotiation,” she said, “and then the university could impose its last best offer.”

Collom hopes it doesn’t get that far, and believes this complaint regarding the “work-to-rule” actions is an unnecessary distraction from the larger task at hand.

“It’s disappointing UMS filed this prohibited-practice complaint instead of sitting down and bargaining with us in good faith and settling this contract and moving the university forward in a positive direction,” he said.

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.