Letters to the editor

When I tell people I am the co-chair of the Resident Assistant Union, United Autoworkers (UAW) Local 2322, the first response I usually get is “Why?”  In a nation with such low union rates, this question is hardly surprising. Most Americans seem to think that unions are a relic of the past, when working conditions were horrendous, child labor, 14-hour work days, excruciatingly low pay, etc.

Few realize that one of the key reasons why workers organized unions was to have a say in their workplace. The formation of unions enabled a subset of workers who are generally elected by the group as a whole, to legally represent their fellow workers and negotiate with their employers over working conditions and pay. Without a union you do not have this right at your worksite.

Without the RA Union, University of Massachusetts RAs would not be some of the most highly paid RAs in the country. We would not have won the 37 percent wage increase we bargained for last semester. Without the union, RAs would not have the relatively good working conditions we now enjoy.

Prior to unionization, UMass RAs had to work shifts during the day as well as our nocturnal duties, while being paid substantially less than we currently are. These improvements in the RA workplace are the result of students and faculty protesting, and some students even getting arrested.

For these reasons I am proud to be the co-chair of the only undergraduate union in the country and believe it is important for all workers, regardless of their status as a student or otherwise, to have a say in their workplace.

-Avery Fürst

“Respect as a Student and as a Worker”

Being a student worker is a demanding role that many students at UMass fill to keep other students and faculty fed, facilities clean and people satisfied. They work to pay for their studies, food and rent during the semester.

I work as a dishwasher for dining services and sometimes as a prep cook when help is needed. I enjoy my job but often feel that student workers lack the voice we deserve for doing so much of the work which keeps the university going.

In a time when student debt is at an all-time high, many student workers earn minimum wage; the amount of work-study contracts given to students is woefully inefficient to help ameliorate the immediate costs of college life.

With an approximate debt load of $25,000 per student, the least the university can do is give people the opportunity to pay some of their rent and food costs. Higher wages and increased work-study opportunities would motivate more students to seek jobs while making it easier on student workers that struggle to balance work and school each semester.

I have had to sacrifice my academics at times so that I can earn some extra cash each week. However, I am lucky that I am earning $9 an hour to help defray living expenses. Other workers are not so lucky. Some of my student co-workers have not gotten raises for nine months or more. I did not get my raise until I worked at the same place for 11 months; in reality, my supervisor gave me a generous raise out of pity that it took so long for the raise to happen.

When my full-time co-workers talk about how their union gives them a say in the workplace, I cannot help but envy their democratic ability to participate in employer negotiations. Even some minimal organization among student dining common workers would help us all to air our grievances and become more active members of the university.

Many say this kind of organization is impossible because of so much labor turnover (students leaving and entering jobs), but it is clear that the UMass student body does not welcome cynicism. The RA Union (United Auto Workers Local 2322) successfully organized and won RAs on campus a 37 percent pay increase last semester when many doubters said undergraduate unionizing was fantastical.

There is no reason to assume that other workers on campus cannot follow this example. We can, at the very least, get together to talk about problems in the workplace and their solutions. The student dishwashers, janitors, cooks, library staff and security monitors all help to run this institution. We should at least have a united voice in our respective workplaces.

– Michael McCormack