AMHERST — More than 100 labor activists rallied at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Monday ahead of a meeting where top union officials and other stakeholders discussed the future of the beleaguered Labor Center.
Outside the Student Union, students, professors and local labor leaders gathered in a circle to rally in support of the UMass Labor Center. Some held signs reading “Education not revenue generation” or “I (love) the Labor Center.” The events were the latest installment in the dispute between university administrators and some in the labor community about budget changes at the Labor Center, which trains students in matters such as workers’ rights and collective bargaining.
Some, including the center’s former director, say that administrators made cuts to the center because it does not serve as a “revenue-generator” for the university, and that officials have tried over the years to shutter the progressive program.
UMass officials say they’re tasked with allocating a finite amount of money across an entire university, and therefore must be cognizant about which programs have the highest need based on enrollment figures. And while the center’s enrollment has declined in recent years, they say they’re working on ways to increase its student numbers.
UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy and Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven A. Tolman were among the stakeholders invited to the Monday meeting, which was not open to the public.
“It was a very positive, productive meeting,” UMass spokesman Edward F. Blaguszewski said. “We expect to move forward to develop proposals and solutions to ensure the long-term success and viability of the center.”
The gathering was a follow-up to a meeting last month with Subbaswamy and AFL-CIO officials and represented the first opportunity to gather stakeholders for talks on the UMass campus.
Blaguszewski said future meetings will go into more detail about budget plans for the center. He said he did not have any details about specific funding changes following Monday’s meeting.
Labor Center officials, including interim director Tom Juravich, could not be reached for comment.
Public controversy began last month after an email written by former Labor Center Director Eve Weinbaum was posted on several blogs. In the email to her colleagues, Weinbaum said the center has been faced with years of budget cuts and the administration has intended several times to shutter the program. This year, she wrote, the budget cuts had eliminated graduate students jobs and forced several part-time faculty members to be laid off.
UMass administrators, including interim dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences John Hird, disagree with that account.
The center was recently expected to tap into its reserve funds to cover its budget, he said. And teaching assistant positions were not eliminated, but reallocated to other areas of the college where enrollment is higher and, as a result, teaching needs are greater.
Several speakers at the Monday rally, however, maintain that the current funding situation at the Labor Center amounts to an attack.
“This may seem like one attack on one small program, but what’s behind it is much bigger,” said Santiago Vidales, co-chairman of the Graduate Employee Organization union. He said the Labor Center’s budget status represents a trend of privatization and corporatization of public education in America.
That sentiment was reflected by graduate student Fermin Valle.
“The rich and powerful are trying to make a profit on every aspect of our life, including education,” he said. But working class people, those whose interests have been supported by the Labor Center, have the chance to change that if they organize and fight back, Valle said.
“Education, we say, is not for sale and it’s not about producing a profit,” he said.
Blaguszewski said claims that UMass has adopted a profit-centered budget model from the top down are untrue.
“There is not a budget model that requires any specific or individual program to make a profit,” he said. “The university as a whole is a nonprofit institution ... it has to be cognizant of what priorities we want to advance and what courses are of interest to students.”
Teaching assistant positions are allocated by administrators of the social sciences college to individual departments.
The Labor Center is part of the sociology department, which saw its total number of TA positions reduced by four this year. Those positions were allocated to other departments in the college with higher enrollments. Sociology faculty make the decisions on allocating TA positions to the center, according to Hird.
But Graduate Employee Organization co-chairwoman Armanthia Duncan, who is a doctoral student in the sociology department, said the reduction in TA positions makes education inaccessible to students of limited economic means. At the rally, she read from a letter signed by her fellow graduate students featuring several demands, including ensuring that Labor Center education is accessible to students of all backgrounds.
David Cohen, a part-time professor who was let go as part of the budget changes, said at the rally it’s important to make education affordable.
“They’re trying to price working class students out of an education,” he said. “This university should be free.”
Chris Lindahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org