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May 14, 2016

UMass hosts rally over state workers’ rights

The recent debate in Wisconsin over the proposed legislation that would terminate collective bargaining rights for many state employees has contributed to outcry over bargaining rights across the nation. Last Wednesday, that opposition was voiced at the University of Massachusetts in the form of a rally.

Anger stemming from the situation in Wisconsin among union supporters led unions and advocacy groups to campus to organize and hold “From Wisconsin to Massachusetts – Defending the Public Sector,” last week. The rally had a turnout of approximately 300 people.

Sarah Hughes, vice president of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) on campus, remarked that she “was really impressed with how the rally went” and that it “became this public union event.”

The rally ended with an all-campus meeting where speakers discussed what they perceive to be recent attacks on unions and suggestions on ways to counter the apparent attacks. The speakers also expressed support for “An Act to Invest in Our Communities,” a bill proposed by Democratic Massachusetts state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Democratic state Rep. Jim O’Day intended to combat budget shortfalls by raising taxes on high-income households.

Hughes said she appreciated the expression of support for the bill. She also iterated her belief that “people should have a say in their own workplaces” and that union members are not just fighting for wages and benefits, but for issues such as hours, grievances or the number of students allowed in a classroom.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans polled are on the same page as Hughes in supporting union rights. The poll found that 61 percent of Americans would oppose a law in their state similar to the one proposed in Wisconsin, while 33 percent would support one.

The same poll found that 71 percent of Americans would oppose increasing sales, income or other taxes to try to close states’ budget gaps, while 27 percent would favor such measures. Fifty-three percent of those polled would also oppose reducing pay or benefits for government workers, while 44 percent would be in favor of it. And 48 percent of those polled would oppose reducing or eliminating government programs, while 47 percent would favor such steps.

Michael Hannahan, a visiting scholar in the Department of Political Science, said he recognizes this split in opinion between cutting pay or programs and increasing taxes, but doesn’t think removing collective bargaining rights for unions is the right solution.

“I do think that unions may have to become more flexible than they have been,” he remarked, but “I don’t think they should remove collective bargaining rights for unions.”

Rather, Hannahan said, “unions in Massachusetts have been reasonably flexible” and that “they’ve done their bit.”

However, he acknowledged that state deficits are so enormous that areas like pensions, healthcare and salaries may have to be partially cut.

“People will have to give things up, but they shouldn’t give up collective bargaining,” he said.

Hannahan also stated he did not believe that there would be much debate sparked over collective bargaining rights for public employees in Massachusetts.

“It won’t be much of one,” Hannahan said. “I think there will be a debate over union givebacks, but not about collective bargaining. Unions are very powerful political figures and give a lot of payback to Democrats.”

Kara Clifford can be reached at kmcliffo@student.umass.edu.

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