UMass unions rally against benefit concession

By Marie MacCune

Members from all unions on campus rallied around the Whitmore Administration Building in protest of the University of Massachusetts’ concessionary bargaining proposals last Friday.

According to Donna Johnson, president of the University Staff Association, all UMass unions are in negotiations with the UMass. Contracts between the University and the unions expired in June.

“We’re being asked to give many concessions. They’re sort of taking with one hand and not giving anything in return,” Johnson said. “They’re taking away fundamental rights.

In an email sent out by rally organizers to news outlets, Professional Staff Union Co-Chair Jo Martone outlined a list of “egregious administration positions” including elimination of comp time, limiting sick and vacation leave accrual, requiring members whom the administration feels are unfit for service to be examined by a physician of the administration’s choosing, threatening retroactivity of raises if the unions do not accept administration demands and loss of first consideration of internal job candidates.

“We are being told that the must-have concessions are coming directly from the president’s office. The message that we’re getting from them is that we cost them money. But how many times does the chancellor’s office need to be remodeled?” Johnson said. “To me, it’s like, why should they balance their budgets on the backs of their workers? Unlike other state employees who have recently settled contracts, the University is asking us to give back some of our basic benefits to pay for cost of living increases.”

The extended negotiations are having an effect on the union members’ pay.  According to Johnson, “the amount of appropriations the University asked for was based on what we would settle for July 1, but what they’re threatening is that if we don’t settle by mid-October then they won’t pay us back through July. If we negotiate until December, then we’ll lose out on all those months too. ”

Rally organizers Maryelen Calderwood and Kerry Brown, graduate students who are studying Labor Studies, estimated 500 union members and supporters marched with them from the Student Union around the Whitmore Administration Building and back.

According to Calderwood, “all the unions on campus are experiencing the same kind of unfair take backs.”

“We are getting academically trained to organize, the labor center rocks. It’s all about people getting together to get stuff done” she said in regards to organizing the rally.  “We want the University to bargain collectively, but collective bargaining is not recognizable this time.”

Nicholas Chavez, who works in the Information Technologies Department and led protesters in chants, said he was at the rally to “stand up for what’s right, what’s just, what’s fair, and what was contractually agreed upon. If this University can afford to move a 200-year-old building a few yards to build another building, then we have money and don’t need to take it from unions.”

Some protestors banged on drums while others chanted slogans such as “UMass works because we do.” and “This is what democracy looks like.” In front of the Student Union, protesters sang “Solidarity Forever.”

Tyler Rocco, a graduate student studying Labor Studies, marched and helped gather signatures for a petition against the administration’s proposals.

“For me, I feel that the way this University treats its workers is a reflection of how it treats the students,” he said.  “There are so many examples of the way this University spends money that doesn’t add to the benefit of its workers and employees.”

Anais Surkin, co-chair of the Graduate Employee Organization, said, “I’m in this rally because this administration has really attacked these unions, eroding our workplace. I’m here to show power and solidarity.  Unions are what make this university run. The University has taken the stance that equity is a race to the bottom, but we disagree. We want to raise everyone up.”

“When we bargain, we don’t just bargain for today,” said Johnson. “We bargain for tomorrow.”

Marie MacCune can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MarieMacCune.