Unions: UMass putting 100 jobs in jeopardy with privatization plan

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-04-2023 9:52 PM

AMHERST — Unions at the University of Massachusetts are contending that more than 100 state jobs, and their accompanying benefits, are being unlawfully privatized by administrators at the Amherst campus in a restructuring of the UMass Advancement office.

On Monday, the University Staff Association and the Professional Staff Union will hold a “Save Our Staff” speak-out at Whitmore Administration to call attention to what they claim is a privatization scheme in the guise of protecting employee pensions. The unions are accusing administrators of deception and mistreatment of the employees that the university is trying to cut by shifting them from UMass Advancement to the nonprofit UMass Amherst Foundation, an entity created on Nov. 21, 2002.

“We are stunned by what we have seen by our employer,” Leslie Marsland, president of the University Staff Association, said in a statement. “Our members have been given false and misleading information, making them think that their state retirement benefits were in jeopardy unless their jobs could be transferred from the university to a private employer.”

The university contends the change needs to happen because the work being done by these union members puts them at risk of violating state pension rules. UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski issued a statement on behalf of the university explaining the rationale for what is happening.

“For several months, UMass Amherst has been working in collaboration with two of our campus unions, USA and PSU, along with the UMass Office of General Counsel and outside counsel, to address legal compliance issues within the university’s Advancement staff structure. These issues could, if unaddressed, impact employees’ eligibility to participate in the Massachusetts State Employee Retirement System (MSERS) and the optional retirement plan (ORP),” Blaguszewski said.

“From the outset, the university has been consistent in its communications with USA and PSU that this process is solely driven by legal and regulatory compliance requirements,” Blaguszewski said.

Under the plan, employees who work for UMass Advancement, as well as related employees, would transition to become employees of the UMass Amherst Foundation. The unions contend this move puts jobs at risk because current employees will have to apply for the positions. Additionally, state pensions and retirement security, including for retirees who formerly worked in Advancement, are in jeopardy, they said.

“All of the positions moving to the UMass Amherst Foundation were determined to have compliance issues that put employees’ pension and retirement eligibility at risk,” Blaguszewski said.

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In a filing with the Office of the State Board of Retirement, Elissa Flynn-Poppey, an attorney with Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo PC of Boston, explains that restructuring is necessary after the private foundation, created to handle large donations made to UMass, and the university were intertwined for the past 20 years.

“As a result of this restructuring, the majority of current Advancement positions will be eliminated and re-created, in whole or in part, as private UMAF positions, and certain current Advancement positions (i.e., those positions that currently perform and will continue to perform significant work for the benefit of UMass Amherst) … will remain public UMass Amherst positions,” Flynn-Poppey in that Feb. 20 communication.

But the unions say that state jobs and benefits for over 100 employees are being eliminated, that UMass is privatizing the work to avoid public oversight, and that the lives of workers and their families are being upended. The unions also argue that claims made by the administration at the bargaining table were not true, and countered with a plan that would keep most jobs in state service while obeying state pension regulations.

On Monday, PSU and USA filed charges against UMass with the Department of Labor Relations for bargaining in bad faith, retaliation and anti-union activity. They point to a 2019 action when the PSU filed an unfair labor practice charge when the university allowed a dozen public employees to be transferred to the UMass Amherst Foundation. Those positions later returned and an agreement was reached that state employees would not perform any work for the UMass Amherst Foundation that could put them at risk of violating state pension rules.

“This attempt to poach state work and eliminate union positions by using workers’ retirement status as a bargaining chip is a manufactured crisis of the most inhumane and despicable nature,” PSU Co-Chairman Brad Turner said in a statement.

“Management is trying to use the state retirement board to win something they were not able to win at the negotiating table,” said PSU Co-Chairman Andrew Gorry.

The unions are taking a two-pronged approach, according to USA Chief Steward Sheila Gilmour.

“We need to protect our members as individuals while we fight back against union busting,” Gilmour said. “Union members have rights under their contracts which we are seeing trampled in this effort to cut union jobs.”

Blaguszewski said the issue is about developing a compliance plan that meets the State Board of Retirement deadline.

“Advancement employees can choose to move to the foundation with their positions and continue their work supporting the university’s mission through philanthropic outreach,” Blaguszewski said. “The university has also designated HR staff to facilitate a process for advancement employees who wish to remain at the university.”

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