UMass unions submit a petition to Board of Trustees for concessions

By Marie MacCune

The University of Massachusetts Unions United Coalition submitted a petition to the UMass Board of Trustees last week. The petition follows in the wake of an on-campus rally, a hearing with the Massachusetts Department of Labor relations and weeks of bargaining for all unions on campus.

According to the petition, “The coalition of UMass Amherst labor unions is actively promoting a vision for our state’s university education system that respects both the individual student’s experience and the collective work we all do to support and shape these experiences.”

The petition also added that “administration is jumping on the national race-to-the-bottom bandwagon with concessionary bargaining proposals.”

Unions, which are part of the coalition, include the Professional Staff Union (PSU), University Staff Association, Massachusetts Society of Professors, Resident Assistant Union, Graduate Employee Organization and AFSCME.

David Lafond, a PSU delegate, said the petition has over 1,700 signatures thus far.

“The idea is that we’re all sort of hitting a wall in our bargaining. We’re facing some pretty aggressive concessions,” Lafond said in regards to the petition.

These concessions include elimination of compensatory 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, among other things.  Many of these concessions apply specifically to any staff hired after contract negotiations have been completed.

“A lot of the concessions work in such a way that they create a second class of citizens among employees,” Lafond said. “The University talks a lot about ideas like justice, equity and opportunity for all.  And we, as unions, support that. But, it is apparent to us that those things are impossible in a two-tier system.”

Lafond also explained that if the unions agree to the concessions being asked for by the administration, the University will have a much harder time bringing in new employees.

“It is not salaries that attract people at these types of institutions, but the salary plus the benefits,” he said. “I think most students who have been around for a year or a two can see that without a set of committed staff, this play just doesn’t run.”

He also pointed out that while enrollment has increased significantly, staff hiring has stagnated.

Lafond says that what is most frustrating about the situation is that, “if you look at all these (concessions) you can imagine an employer in financial trouble. But the University is in its second year of having the state commit to 50-50 funding.”

According to Lafond, the administration cited struggles of minimum wage workers in the fast food industries as a sort of explanation for the concessions being asked for.

“If you operate on the premise that ‘if other folks are operating on less then so should you,’ it’s like playing to the lowest common denominator. We should be the example, it’s just sad,” Lafond added. “The unions have been consistent lobbyers for better education. It’s a sad thing to see the University mimic some of the worst trends in the private sector.”

Anna Waltman, co-chair of the Graduate Employee Organization, spoke on GEO’s involvement in the petition and the greater labor movement taking place on campus, saying, “I think it is particularly meaningful to be part of a campus wide uniting because we straddle the line between campus students and staff.  As a group, we are unique in this position.”

In terms of what the petition means for GEO, she added that “It’s about situating our contract, which is about respect and equity and coordinating that with the broader labor efforts on campus.”

According to Waltman, “Having GEO part of this demonstrates that there is a link between the quality of education at UMass and the quality of our contracts. We are all part of the broader narrative of a campus labor movement.”

Waltman stressed the importance of unity as the unions continue their negotiations with the University.

“We’re all fighting the same fight and sharing the same struggle,” she said, adding that as the negotiations continue, “It’s only going to get louder.”

Marie MacCune can be reached at [email protected]