Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass workers, staff unions protest University administration job privatization attempts

‘I have never felt more undervalued than today, the way this university is treating me’
Daily Collegian/Ella Adams

On Monday afternoon at about 12:45 p.m., over 50 individuals gathered at the ramp of the Whitmore Administration Building on the University of Massachusetts campus to protest the administration’s attempts to privatize over 100 union jobs.

Among the crowd were members of both the Professional Staff Union and University Staff Association — two labor unions fighting for and representing the group of workers facing job, benefits and pension loss as a result of the privatization controversy.

“It would take us out of our union positions and make us at-will employees, to be hired and fired at-will. And we would lose our contributions to the state pension, we’d lose our pensions, we’d lose our benefits,” Kim Fill, who has worked at UMass for over 28-years, said. Fill is the W.E.B Du Bois Library assistant director for annual giving and donor relations. She’s also an alumna, a donor and a soon-to-be UMass parent.

“I want you to look around at all of the banners on campus. We boast justice, equity, inclusion with slogans like ‘be bold’ [and] ‘be proud,’” Fill said. “‘Building a community of dignity and respect,’ a place where everyone is valued and all voices are heard. UMass employees also deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, to have our voices heard.”

“We love our jobs, our careers and we want to keep them,” Fill said. “People need to know that this is really a fabricated privatization scheme.”

Fill was one of many directly impacted workers and union members to speak on Monday. Signs stood out above the crowd of fellow union workers, students and allies until about 1:30 p.m. “Save Our Staff” emboldened on many of the signs, with a QR code linking to a petition supporting the union workers.

This protest stemmed from claims made by UMass administration in December 2022, regarding employee pensions and their standing under the Massachusetts State Retirement Board.

In December, the administration claimed that a number of employees’ pensions were in violation of the MSRB because of tasks they perform for the UMass Amherst Foundation — a private, institutional 501(c)(3) foundation created in 2003 to handle large donations made to the University.

On Feb. 20, UMass Amherst’s and the UMass Amherst Foundation’s lawyer submitted a document to the MSRB outlining the reasons behind their moves to privatize so many union jobs.

The target jobs are “advancement” positions, or positions that handle the money and funds raised for students and departments across campus. Those Advancement positions include Donor Information Services, Records & Gift Processing, Prospect Research, Prospect Management and Finance & Administration.

According to Brad Turner, co-chair of the UMass Amherst Professional Staff Union (PSU), the unions still do not know why administration is making claims of pension violation.

“Massachusetts law is clear: University employees may spend up to 25 percent of their time working for their University’s foundation and be in full compliance with the law. The legislature established this special provision to enable universities to establish foundations that would work hand-in-hand with university fundraising professionals — recognizing their work as public work,” Turner explained via email.

“Every single UMass employee whose current fundraising work complies with the 25 percent rule — which is the majority of our members — should remain a state employee,” Turner continued.

According to Turner, only two weeks ago, UMass told the MSRB that most of these Advancement employees have zero compliance issues in the existing structure, directly conflicting with their prior claims.

Turner said UMass wants to take union members out of the pension system; if UMass eliminates their current positions and recreates them with a private, non-union employer, nobody gets a pension.

On Feb. 28, PSU and USA filed charges against UMass with the Department of Labor Relations (DLR) for “bargaining in bad faith, retaliation and anti-union activity.”

Marcie Gallo O’Connell works in Advancement, and her connection to UMass spans over 30 years, multiple UMass degrees and University committee membership. “It might look like we’re fighting against UMass, but no. We’re fighting for UMass, because we are UMass,” O’Connell said to the crowd.

O’Connell mentioned the University’s recent implementation of the Okanagan Charter — a charter that promotes holistic health and wellbeing at colleges and universities across the globe.

“The shocking and unenviable position that my colleagues and I find ourselves in doesn’t look like the picture of mental or social well-being to me,” O’Connell said. “I think it’s obvious to say that the threat of losing our state jobs, pensions, benefits and having to upend our lives in this shocking and disrespectful way erodes our wellbeing.”

This privatization concern can be traced back to 2019, when the PSU filed an unfair labor practice charge with the DLR after the University illegally transferred around one dozen public, union employees to the UMass Amherst Foundation.

The DLR issued a formal complaint, and PSU reached an agreement with UMass, returning those positions to the union and agreeing with UMass that state employees wouldn’t perform work for the UMass Amherst Foundation that could potentially violate state pension rules.

Information Services Coordinator and Senior Applications Designer, Gail Gunn, has worked at UMass for 25 years in outreach. She spoke to the crowd through the megaphone with her service dog at her side. “For 25 years, my job at UMass has supported and enhanced this university’s outreach, communication and fundraising efforts at record-breaking levels,” Gunn said.

“Now, under the guidance of Chancellors Arwen Staros Duffy and Bill Brady, and their attorneys, how is UMass choosing to reward my 25 years of dedicated service and the service of 100 of my advancement colleagues? By eliminating our public service jobs, laying us off and making our jobs private,” Gunn continued. She noted that not only will state taxpayers not benefit from this privatization, but that UMass is primarily making this decision to curb state regulations so it does not have to report to the state.

“I have never felt more undervalued than today, the way this university is treating me,” Mike Dufresne, PSU Unit B chair and bargaining committee member said. Dufresne has been an employee of the University for 33 years and senses a pattern in administrative decisions.

“Make no mistake – this is a litmus test. This is a drop in the bucket of where they want to go. It’s by design,” Dufresne said. “I love this place. I bleed maroon. It’s really sad what we’re seeing here.”

Jeff Jones, a representative of Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation and the UFCW local 1459 President, was there to support UMass workers. He spoke briefly to the crowd, warning protesters about the potential reality if UMass manages to succeed. “This is union busting, folks. I don’t care what kind of label they’re going to put on it,” Jones said. “If they can get away with it now, they’ll just keep it going.”

Monday’s protest was a call to the University administration to return to the bargaining table. Under collective bargaining laws in the existing union agreement, Jay Johnson said, it’s illegal for UMass to refuse to negotiate with the unions. Johnson is the director of digital services for advancement at UMass and has worked on campus for seven years.

While the administration entered bargaining with the unions about restructuring and advancement, the negotiation was left at a standstill. “The administration just walked away and submitted their plan to privatize and their statement that they would eliminate these state jobs except for six in a doc they submitted to the Massachusetts state retirement board. And we haven’t heard another word from them,” Johnson said.

“The university is obligated by law to come back to the negotiation table. A lot of these employees started working here long before the private UMass Amherst Foundation was founded in 2003,” Johnson said. “We’re doing public work and public service, and we’re standing up to protect our rights to continue doing this good public work. And there’s no justification for privatizing.”

Ella Adams can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @ella_adams15.

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