Unfair labor practice charges filed against University

Graduate Employment Organization accuses UMass of union busting

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By Irina Costache, Assistant News Editor

The Graduate Employee Organization has filed two unfair labor practice charges against the University of Massachusetts Amherst and one collective grievance against the campus’ Department of Labor in regard to the University’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

The first charge, filed on May 8, alleges that the University attempted to union-bust over a collective vacation payout request. The second charge was due to the University ending a bargaining session with the union early last Tuesday.

“The disagreements between the union and UMass Amherst are before Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations, and the university declines comment about the charges filed by the union that are now being reviewed by the state” Ed Blaguszewski, Executive Director of Strategic Communications for the University, wrote in an email statement. “The university is bargaining in good faith and does not comment in detail about ongoing labor negotiations.”

Unfair Labor Charges

GEO had issued a list of demands to the University in April that included job security, vacation payouts and a postponement of rent collection and demolition of the North Village and Lincoln Apartments. Bargaining sessions began in April, and since then the union has reported that the main counteroffer made by the University has been in regard to spring break vacation payouts.

The University’s proposal for the spring break vacation payouts was to give graduate workers time off for a different week in the semester. On May 5, over 550 graduate students from over 30 departments collectively submitted a request for a vacation on the week of May 11, asking for a response from the University by May 7.

If denied, graduate workers said they were entitled to a payout, as outline in Article 38 of the GEO contract.

“The Provost did a union busting strategy, which was trying to be individual, case-by-case,” said Antonios Gounalakis, a representative of GEO. “The instruction was to go department by department and examine each individual case.”

The union claims that this decision to address each vacation request individually is an unlawful sidestep of the union bargaining and representation process.

“The University has instead attempted to undermine the Union by ignoring the collective nature of the action and using pressure and intimidation tactics to create tensions between faculty members and [graduate student] employees over these vacation requests,” the GEO said in a press release on May 12.

“Graduate workers demand more than empty promises from the flagship University of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” the release also said.

In a bargaining session on May 19, attended by over 200 people, the University presented two changes to their previous positions. According to the GEO newsletter, the University said that  “the vacation payout proposal was now moot, as the semester has ended.”

Additionally, the University suggested combining two funds included in previous proposals into one fund holding $425,000. The school did this despite declining to increase the amount of money going toward a hardship fund or jobs for graduate students, the GEO newsletter said.

Toward the conclusion of the bargaining session, the University bargaining team told the GEO that they needed to end the meeting early. Though the union pushed back, the University administrators did not agree to finish the meeting.

After the meeting, the union emailed their new ultimatum offers to the school, which would be valid for only 24 hours.

The offers included keeping the North Village and Lincoln Apartments open until December 2020, waiving rent for graduate students who do not have a 20-hour assistantship, legal advice and funding support for international graduate, a $2.5 million pandemic assistantship for graduate students and job security promises.

In a tweet last Wednesday, the GEO said, “Today we heard back that they won’t take or even discuss the deal. We’ve always said that divided we beg and united we bargain. We won’t let them divide us with this offer; we won’t take scraps.”

International Student Funding

On May 8, Provost John McCarthy sent an email to graduate students announcing that “to help graduate students stay on track with their academic progress toward degree completion, we have pooled institutional and Federal monies to create a graduate student financial aid fund of $1 million.”

The email continued to state that “By combining institutional and Federal funds, the university’s graduate student financial aid fund will provide relief to both our domestic and our international graduate students. The latter comprise nearly 40 percent of the graduate student population.”

The University received a $18,335,243 package of emergency stimulus money in federal funding from the CARES Act, of which at least $9,167,622 was to be used for financial-aid grants.

“They don’t specify the exact combination [of federal and institutional money],” said Gounalakis. This is leaving international students and those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, who don’t have access to the federal funding or stimulus checks, worried about how much aid they might be able to receive.

According to the CARES Act FAQ page, the University has earmarked $700,00 of its funding from the Act for graduate students.

“The population of international students, according to the Provost, is 40 percent. And they have only access to 30 percent [of the fund],” said Gounalakis.

“We are facing expenses that we didn’t expect because, many of us used to travel to our countries, or even inside the US. We have unexpected expenses – we need to pay the rent, to pay internet, we need to secure food here in the US, and so on,” said Nicolas Bohme Olivera, an international PhD student in economics. “So, there’s kind of a situation in which we are having new expenditures, but the University is not helping the student.

“I know they already offered a very small funding of $1 million which for all the members of the union is not enough. So, right now we are in a situation of very uncertain time in a very short run,” he continued.

The press release also added that “Graduate student workers are generally excluded from unemployment benefits.”

Endorsements and Outreach

On May 11, the GEO called for an emergency reverse town hall meeting for graduate students to express the difficulties they are facing and share testimonials. University administrators were invited to join and hear from students.

According to Gounalakis, there were some staff members from the International Programs Office who attended, but there were no attendees from the University administration.

The GEO is also focusing on getting endorsements from different unions and organizations in regard to their demands.

So far, they have received endorsements from the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the Professional Staff Union, the United Auto Workers Region 9A, as well as other local unions and graduate worker unions from universities around the country.

In cooperation with other unions on campus, the GEO also co-hosted an online town hall titled “UMass Unions United” last Thursday through a Zoom conference.

A press release said that the town hall was aiming “to highlight the common struggles faced by university workers in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities for workers to stand together to fight layoffs and job cuts.”

Irina Costache can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @irinaacostache.