UMass unions rally on campus, claim existing benefits at risk during contract negotiations



Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2014

AMHERST — Contentious contract negotiations and claims that University of Massachusetts administrators want to take back union benefits prompted an hour-long campus rally led by employees Friday.

Holding yellow signs and wearing yellow stickers reading “UMass Unions United to Protect Our Rights,” more than 200 members, joined by a number of undergraduate students, spoke in front of the Student Union building and then circled the Whitmore Administration Building chanting that they will stand up and fight for fair contracts.

“All they want to do is take back our benefits,” Donna Johnson, president of the 1,000-member University Staff Association who has served on the negotiating team for the past 12 years, said of UMass administrators. “We’re not asking for a lot. We’re asking for a living wage.”

Johnson said the rally, held under sunny skies on a warm late-summer morning, was about ensuring that new contracts do not dismantle existing pay and benefit provisions.

At least one union began negotiating a new contract in late March. Most union employees have been working under terms of contracts that expired June 30 and were recently informed by representatives of the administration that if contracts are not settled by mid-October, employees will not get any retroactive pay increases, even though the state Legislature has budgeted for them, Johnson said.

“Management’s bad faith undermines the entire community,” Johnson said. “Our unions are being asked to make important concessions, and are being offered nothing. The administration is showing its employees a lack of respect that is stunning.”

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said in a prepared statement that the university does not comment on the specifics of contract talks, but he defended its negotiating position.

“The university is negotiating in good faith to reach agreements that reflect the campus community’s commitment to excellence and manage our financial resources in the most effective manner possible,” Blaguszewski said.

Rally participants represented the five largest campus unions which represent about 6,000 employees. Besides USA, they are the Professional Staff Union, Massachusetts Society of Professors, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1776, and Graduate Employees Organization.

Johnson said that demands made by the administration which the unions believe are unreasonable include:

∎ USA members would not be given first consideration over new hires for advancement in on-campus positions.

∎ AFSCME members would be required to provide a doctor’s note when absent for an illness on the day before or after a holiday.

∎ The Professional Staff Union and Massachusetts Society of Professors would lose eligibility for compensation time for hours beyond a normal work week.

∎ GEO members face continued working conditions where teaching assistants scheduled to work 15 to 20 hours each week are putting in 40 to 50 hours without additional compensation.

Anna Waltman, a spokeswoman for the GEO and a teaching assistant in the English Department, said many TAs have been forced to increase their teaching loads from two to three classes and had comprehensive health insurance replaced with a co-insurance plan.

“We’re seeing changes being made unilaterally without bargaining,” said Waltman, who has been at UMass since 2009.

Wesley Blixt, past chairman of the Professional Staff Union, said a petition now being circulated on the Amherst campus supporting the unions and opposing benefit take-backs will be given to UMass trustees when they meet Sept. 17 in Boston. Similar petitions are being distributed on the UMass Boston, Lowell and Dartmouth campuses, he said.

The unions are also soliciting information about wasteful spending by UMass, arguing that the administration is trying to balance its budget on the workers’ backs. Johnson said they plan to publicize that information online.

As rally participants passed by the W.E.B. DuBois Library and other buildings, additional signs and banners such as “Jobs for Justice” and “I will not concede my benefits” were waved. Drums were banged as people shouted “unions united will never be divided” and sang “stand up, fight back” to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Curious students passing by captured the proceedings on their cellphones.

Undergraduates participating in the rally were represented by the Center for Education Policy and Action, and the Student Labor Action Project, a group that promotes economic justice and whose members brought forward a proposal to Amherst Town Meeting in March to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in town.

SLAP president and UMass senior Rebecca Kanter said it is important to stand in solidarity with union members. “We want all unions to have fair contracts and support them with the bargaining process,” Kanter said. “These are the people who teach our classes, serve our food and make the campus what it is.”

Blixt said it is gratifying to see so many understand that negotiations are not someone else’s problem.

“We are of a body that believes in social and economic justice, and in organized labor,” Blixt said. “We believe this is a battle for the soul of the university.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


 


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