RAs union files grievance UMass

  • Students protest staff reductions among resident assistants and peer mentors at UMass last week. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Students protest staff reductions among resident assistants and peer mentors at UMass last week. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2020 7:12:30 PM

AMHERST — The union representing resident assistants and peer mentors at the University of Massachusetts has filed a formal grievance against the university for allegedly violating a contract agreement stating that laid off workers must be compensated their full salaries.

University officials, however, argue that the majority of the RAs and peer mentors selected for positions this fall were not formally hired and are therefore not eligible for compensation.

The grievance, filed by the RA/PM Union, was issued following the university’s Aug. 7 announcement that only students who needed to take in-person classes would be allowed to return to campus housing for the fall semester. Previously, any students who had already secured housing were welcome to return.

Around this time, the university informed 93% of RAs and peer mentors that their jobs would not be needed in the fall — a move that the RA/PM union says constitutes layoffs, which the university denies.

The union said the staff reduction limited the anticipated total number of RAs and peer mentors to 36 — 34 RAs and two peer mentors. The university said it had originally scheduled about 300 RAs and peer mentors to work in the fall, though the union put the total at 460 workers.

James Cordero, a co-chair of the RA/PM Union, said that he believes UMass made the right decision by revising its original plans for the fall semester. But, he added, the university must honor its agreement to compensate RAs and peer mentors as stipulated in their contract.

“We believe this decision saved lives,” Cordero said, noting that the RA/PM Union had pushed for this reversal of plans, with 95% of members authorizing the bargaining team to formally refuse to work under the former conditions, arguing they were unsafe. “But at the same time, with the reopening plan canceled, UMass chose to lay off the vast majority of our workforce without properly compensating us per our contract.”

The contract states that “in the event the employer/university administration determines that it is necessary to reduce the RA/PM work force due to financial reasons, organizational/programmatic changes, or due to unforeseen catastrophic circumstances, no RA/PM shall suffer a loss in compensation or benefits.”

According to Cordero, UMass officials argue that the RAs and peer mentors had not been formally hired, which the union disputes. Cordero said members have email correspondence from the university discussing appointment offers and using language such as “newly hired staff,” which they believe constitutes an official hire.

In a statement to the Gazette, UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski did not address the grievance specifically, but stated “the RA/PM appointment had not yet commenced for the upcoming academic year,” and that changes to the fall reopening plan necessitated the staff reductions. Around 1,100 students will live in university residence halls, according to Blaguszewski — updated from 740 students earlier in the month — compared to the estimated 7,000 anticipated on campus before the reversed decision.

“As a result, there is no work for most student resident assistants and student peer mentors,” Blagusewski said. “As a standard practice, the university hires the number of staff needed to support the residential population.”

But Cordero said RAs and peer mentors successfully carried out their work remotely during the spring, and he believes that they could continue to improve upon this work in the fall.

However, Blaguszewski said, “The public health decision to greatly reduce the on-campus population will create substantial new revenue losses due to the pandemic. The campus is in the process of making painful decisions about how to reduce its full-time benefited workforce.”

Protest halted

Union members protested the reductions and alleged contract violation over two days last week outside of UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s residence. After several minutes protesting on one of those days, Cordero said UMass police arrived and ordered protesters to leave or face arrest and a two-year ban from campus. The protestors originally planned to camp outside of Subbaswamy’s residence, but left and returned the next day, where Cordero said they were able to protest for about 30 minutes before again being told to cease-and-desist by UMass police.

The protestors were ordered to leave, Blaguszewski said, because “the chancellor’s home and yard are his family’s personal residence, and the public is not authorized to gather or set up tents on this property.” Police monitored the protest while making their usual rounds, he noted, and did not receive a complaint call.

UMass police “suggested the students relocate to an adjacent parking lot to conduct their protest, and police said the students agreed to do so without incident,” Blaguszewski added.

But Cordero sees the action as a message that Subbaswamy will not listen to the union’s grievance.

“It was clear that the chancellor would rather arrest us than negotiate in good faith, honoring our contract,” Cordero said.

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