UMass unions protest job cuts, furloughs

  • A replica asteroid is seen in front of the Mullins Center in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/BERA DUNAU

  • A section of the car caravan protesting furloughs and hours reductions at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. BERA DUNAU

  • A sign is seen on the hood of Clare Hammonds’ vehicle, a participant in the car caravan protesting furloughs and hours reductions at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/BERA DUNAU

Published: 2/27/2021 6:21:30 PM

AMHERST — A multi-venue protest was organized by UMass Amherst Unions United on Friday against furloughs and hours reductions for college employees.

One element of the protest was a car rally, in which dozens of cars met in Hadley before making their way through the University of Massachusetts campus on a route that took them past Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s house.

UMass Amherst Unions United is a coalition of all of the college’s unions, minus its police unions.

Many of the vehicles in the caravan were decorated with flags and signs, with some signs featuring a drawing of an asteroid hitting the campus. This was in reference to a comment by UMass board of trustees member Michael O’Brien, who said an emergency use of the system’s cash reserves would be for an unforeseen catastrophe, such as an asteroid hitting the earth.

O’Brien’s comment was widely referenced and criticized over a Zoom meeting held simultaneously with the car rally, where it was noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is a global catastrophe.

“The crisis is already here,” said Alysha Desharnais, part of the leadership team at UMass’ Professional Staff Union, who moderated the meeting.

A giant replica asteroid was placed in front of the William D. Mullins Memorial Center and Hoang Phan, a Massachusetts Society of Professors member and the director of the school’s Social Thought and Political Economy program, said that there’s a contest for what to call the asteroid.

As of Feb. 25, 976 unionized staff at UMass Amherst have been hit by furloughs and hours reductions since September and 427 are still on furloughs or hours reductions, according to the coalition.

“Bring all the staff back,” said Melinda Nielsen at the Zoom meeting.

Nielsen, a staff member who was furloughed in October and is now working for UMass again, credited her union with getting her her job back.

Out in front of the asteroid, Phan said dozens of students had been supportive of the coalition’s efforts as they walked past. “The response has been overwhelming,” he said.

Two of the students who came by and showed their support were seniors Maya Jakubowski and Sophia Rugo.

“It’s been quite terrible how UMass has handled everything,” Jakubowski said, and Rugo noted she had lost her job as a fitness instructor at UMass.

“I totally support this,” she said of the union actions.

“Right now students are missing essential resources,” said Phan. “We’re here to say, bring all staff back. Students deserve support.”

Eve Weinbaum, who works as faculty at the Labor Center at UMass, said she the events went well. “People had a lot of fun,” she said.

Weinbaum also said that a teach-in or teach-out may be happening in the future.

As the protest was happening, Subbaswamy joined the “Lunchtime Livestream” hosted by State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, on his social media platforms.

Subbaswamy told Lesser that the COVID-19 outbreak at the UMass campus in early February has ended. “We’re back to completely safe levels,” Subbaswamy said, adding that this will continue so long as students follow protocols and don’t misbehave.

He said that self-sequestration for all students on campus and off was a “draconian,” but necessary, measure. The university investigates illegal gatherings and then quickly hands down discipline, but Subbaswamy said it is urban legend that a large party led to the outbreak.

“It was mostly small groups of three to five that gave rise to these cases,” Subbaswamy said.

All students were tested as they returned.

“When people came back, rates were a little higher than we anticipated,” Subbaswamy said.

The 5,000 students living on campus, fewer than the 14,000 normally in dorms, includes students who need to be at in-person classes, such as science labs and fine arts and music studios, along with about 3,000 freshmen.

“Our research shows that first semester is critical to acclimating students to academic life,” Subbaswamy said.

Subbaswamy is also confident that the campus will be back to a new normal in the fall semester, though is likely to still require people to wear masks and social distance, and a lower-density campus as people choose to continue to learn remotely.

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