You see them every day. The men and women who clean our dormitories, cook our meals and provide needed repairs and maintenance to keep the University of Massachusetts running. The construction workers, hundreds of feet in the air, build the new Commonwealth Honors College Residential Complex dormitories, the new laboratory sciences building and the new classrooms. These men and women are the backbone of UMass. Without them, this University cannot function.
Unfortunately, UMass administration sees these workers as expendable. A study conducted by the Coalition for Responsible UMass Employment (made up of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and campus and building trade unions) found that workers were not being protected on numerous construction and maintenance projects. Workers lacked necessary training and safety protections on job sites. They were not being paid or not being paid the amount agreed upon for the work they were doing. Furthermore, these unsafe working conditions also posed a risk to students and faculty who lived and worked in or around many of the projects.
About a month ago, six UMass employees working in Munson Hall found themselves in an extremely dangerous situation. While working in the basement, an officer from Environmental Health and Safety discovered massive amounts of lead and asbestos, according to a report in an AFSCME Local 1776 newsletter. The workers there had been working for over a week without knowing they were being exposed to asbestos. Twice the workers had been told that the building was safe when, in fact, it had never been inspected, the newsletter stated.
This is merely the most recent case of workers unnecessarily being exposed to dangerous working conditions. The Coalition for Responsible UMass Employment has asked the University administration multiple times now to enact a Responsible Employer Policy for UMass. Such a policy would mandate that workers are paid the wages owed to them, establish training requirements for workers, force UMass to abide by OSHA standards, and create a review board that would ensure that the policy is being enforced. These are reasonable demands made to protect workers, students and faculty, yet time and time again UMass has refused to sign the policy. Most recently, the coalition requested to meet with Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy to discuss the policy since the chancellor is new to campus. At first Subbaswamy agreed to a meeting but has since refused to meet with the coalition.
It is time for the UMass administration to commit to ensuring a safe working and living environment for students, faculty and campus employees. It is unacceptable for workers to be exposed to asbestos. It is unacceptable that construction workers are not being paid for the work they do. The UMass administration needs to sign the Responsible Employer Policy.
Ben Bull is a member of the UMass Student Labor Action Project. He can be reached at email@example.com.