UMass unions rally for wages, health and safety

  • Leslie Marsland, president of the University Staff Association, speaks in front of the Student Union during UMass Unions United rally Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/SCOTT MERZBACH

  • UMass Unions United rally outside W.E.B. DuBois Library Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/SCOTT MERZBACH

  • The UMass Unions United rally leaves W.E.B. DuBois Library for Whitmore Administration Building, Wednesday afternoon, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer
Published: 2/2/2022 9:28:51 PM
Modified: 2/2/2022 9:27:21 PM

AMHERST — At both the recently renovated Student Union and the newly constructed Integrative Learning Center on the University of Massachusetts campus, students and employees using wheelchairs may not be fully accommodated inside the buildings.

For senior Mya Pol, neither building has a bathroom she can use, illustrating, as did the recent snowstorm in which Pol was stranded in her accessible housing when snow and ice wasn’t cleared, that health and safety aren’t always prioritized by the administration.

“We need more support and more equitable access,” Pol said during a Wednesday afternoon rally staged by UMass Unions United. “Students have been advocating for access for decades.”

The unions, including the Professional Staff Union, the University Staff Association, the Massachusetts Society of Professors, AFSCME 1776 and the Graduate Employees Organization, are seeking to settle contracts that expired July 1, 2020, and, in addition to fair wages, achieve a series of other reforms.

Their demands include better working and learning conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting long-term sustainable and green building practices in campus design, and having more dignity and respect in buildings for those who are immunocompromised and disabled.

As head of grounds service for the Office of Waste Management, Mike Dufresne told the 100 or so participating in the rally that he worked throughout the pandemic, even with the risk of being on campus. He estimates that three-quarters of his colleagues have had COVID-19 infections, with one crew member dying from complications of the coronavirus.

“We’re in harm’s way,” said Dufresne, chairman of the PSU Unit B Chapter and chief steward. “We are not compensated for (the risks) whatsoever.

“It’s getting really old really fast. They really need to step up and do something for us,” he added.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski issued a statement addressing the status of union contracts.

“UMass Amherst continues to bargain in good faith with the unions representing our employees, and we are hopeful of reaching agreements with them in the near future,” Blaguszewski said. “While negotiations continue, terms of the previous contract agreements continue to remain in place.”

The “Protect Our Rights” rally took place on Groundhog’s Day, with the day chosen to match the theme of the movie where the day repeats over and over. Beginning in front of the Student Union, participants continued to the Campus Center and W.E.B DuBois Libary, before the rally concluded at the Whitmore Administration Building, with people holding signs and chanting phrases such as “We want good contracts now.”

“Unfortunately, the administration is still claiming austerity and trying to roll back rights that we’ve already negotiated,” said Eve Weinbaum, a faculty member and leader of the professors union.

PSU Co-Chairman Andrew Gorry described the period since 2020 as a time when sacrifices have been made, including furloughs, staffing cuts and increased workloads.

“Inflation is going through the roof and heating bills are at an all-time high,” Gorry said. “Now that the state has billions of dollars in surplus funds, it’s time to take care of those who took care of UMass when things were tough.”

Several who spoke said UMass has the resources to pay fair wages, and could invest American Rescue Plan Act money in improving conditions in the workplaces.

“Our proposals would make the university a much better place for everybody,” said Jacquie Kurland, vice president of the professors union, adding she doesn’t know how the university can say no to the concepts of equity and inclusion.

Leslie Marsland, president of the staff association, said frustrations in negotiations include seeking more vacation time, sick time and other leave benefits, and fixing mold in her building and lack of ventilation.

“We’re feeling like the administration doesn’t care about us,” Marsland said “Our members need to be paid for what we do.”

As the rally ended in front of Whitmore, members went inside to deliver their written demands directly to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. They also put several masks imprinted with “UMass Unions United for a Healthy Workplace” and Hershey Kisses chocolates in the package.

Hoang Phan, an associate professor and member of the professors union, said the event was successful to draw attention to the campus they want.

“I’m very pleased at the coming together of students, faculty and staff on campus,” Phan said. “This gathering together shows solidarity and concern for the safety and health of students and workers on this campus.”

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