Appreciating campus workers

By Aaron Weiss

(Courtesy of the AFGE/Flickr)
(Courtesy of the AFGE/Flickr)

Worker Appreciation Day was October 20, and the Student Labor Action Project hosted a brunch to show gratitude to the many workers of the University of Massachusetts. We’d like to encourage other students to do their part in expressing their gratitude to those with whom they interact.

Workers make UMass work. They clean our dishes, our floors and our showers. They fix our heating, sell us books and run the on-campus hotel. Perhaps most importantly, they make our food. Do we, as students, consider the significance these employees have in our everyday lives? Without UMass workers, we could not have the incredible experiences made available to us at this institution. So, what do they get in return?

UMass is one of the largest minimum wage employers in the state. Working a traditional 2,000-hour work-year at the minimum wage nets a whopping $16,000 per year. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty line for a family of four is $23,850 per year. The United States Census Bureau reports Amherst Center has a poverty rate of 30.5 percent, roughly three times the state average of 11 percent. It’s no wonder roughly a third of the people living in Amherst and the surrounding towns are living below the poverty line. Given its size, our university has a profound impact on the areas surrounding it, but chooses to do the bare minimum to keep its workers out of poverty.

On top of this, the University keeps workers from their rightfully deserved benefits, violating the spirit of a court ruling in 1979, Berwald et al. v. The UMass Board of Trustees. The court determined it was unlawful for the University to keep workers serving a non-temporary function as a temporary worker for more than one year. Yet 35 years later, the University keeps long-time workers under this temporary designation by firing and rehiring them every year so they never technically work long enough to warrant promotion under the terms of the ruling. As temporary workers, they are denied crucial benefits such as health and dental care.

The temporary workers fought back against this abuse in 2011 by unionizing. After three years of unionization, they continue to work without contract as the University has kept them in a perpetual state of bargaining. As Ben Walton wrote earlier this year, continued bargaining has even been used by the administration to deny workers raises. Combined with inflation, the lives of essential workers are only getting harder, and they deserve better.

As students of this institution, we pay a great deal of money and there’s no reason those who feed us should not be able to feed themselves.

SLAP urges students to do their part in demanding economic justice for all UMass workers because they fundamentally shape our experience here and deserve far, far better than they have now. We need to band together in support of our workers; doing otherwise supports the status quo. We need their support and right now, they need ours.

Aaron Weiss can be reached at [email protected]