U-Mass unions demand funded contracts, plan walkouts
"Fund the contracts or we won't work."
This militant message from over 200 rank-and-file members from the campus's five unions rang through the Mullins Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst November 6.
Responding to Acting Governor Jane Swift's veto of pay raises for thousands of union members at all 28 state colleges and universities in July, the workers demanded that the university system's Board of Trustees help get their contracts funded. All unions at the 28 campuses have organized a coalition, Higher Ed Unions United, to push for the funding.
At the meeting, the unions focused on University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger, because of his failure to pressure House of Representatives Speaker Thomas Finneran to permit a vote in the House this fall to override Swift's veto. Instead, he has focused on more "entrepreneurial" activities, such as securing more military and corporate contracts for state universities.
Unions at campuses in Massachusetts bargain separate contracts with respective campus administrations. They are then passed on to the governor for consultation. When the legislature votes for the necessary funding, the governor traditionally approves the contracts. Swift is believed to be the first state governor to have vetoed funding for campus unions' contracts.
Rank-and-file members and their supporters marched through the rain to the elegant meeting room where the trustees were meeting, sang civil rights-era songs and stomped their feet to spirited chants of "Hey, hey, ho, ho. Billy Bulger's got to go," "No contracts, no peace",, and "Stop the threats, stop the lies, we are strong and organized." Some union members wore bright yellow shirts with the simple message: "Promises broken."
Ronald Story, president of the faculty union, addressed the trustees after presenting petitions with over 7,700 signatures from higher education workers and students. The petition drive, he declared, "represents a new militancy in the U-Mass community, one that is likely to grow and expand. We can work together rather than split and start a war."
Donna Johnson, president of the University Staff Association (USA), a union of clerical and technical workers, said membership in that union had dropped from 1,200 to 1,000 people, due to budget cuts, lack of funding and forced early retirements. This, she says, has led to more work with no increased pay as the cost of living, especially rent, skyrockets.
Johnson told the trustees that some of her members were homeless because wages can't cover all their expenses. She demanded that the trustees and Bulger immediately help get the contracts funded, start reinstating positions, and guarantee that students, staff and faculty have sufficient resources to do their jobs.
Thomas Coish, president of SEIU Local 509 and campus worker for over two decades, said campus morale is at an all-time low; members feel "a real sense of distrust and betrayal" and most feel the university is in crisis. But they're not giving up. "We're going to give [Bulger] one more chance to work with us, to get the contracts funded," Coish said. He reminded the trustees that the 1,000-member AFSCME union on campus had authorized its leadership to call a walkout. Two other campus unions, the Graduate Employee Organization, with over 2,500 members, and the USA, have given Bulger a "no confidence" vote.
There are over 6,000 union members at the Amherst campus.
The unions plan to build on previous actions, including a first-ever all-union membership meeting in September, pickets at administrators' meetings and homes, leafleting, and large demonstrations. Future actions might include a brief system-wide walkout during final exams in December.
Bryan Pfeifer is a graduate student in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.