Unionizing for Fairness

Not too long ago, a staff employee at the University of Vermont, a woman who had worked there for 30 years, was handed a pink slip and told to pack up. The reasons were vague: a department reorganization, which never happened, and unspecified budget issues. But the consequences were very specific. This woman was six months and 15 days away from qualifying for pension benefits—and she would never get them. “It was really an awful thing. We were all horrified,” said Helen Maciejewski, an administrative coordinator in the university’s animal science department. Horrified, but not paralyzed: Maciejewski and her colleagues knew they needed a union.

Job security, workplace conditions, fairness, and respect: At the University of Vermont (UVM), and also at Mount Hood Community Oregon, where classified staff employees have recently joined the NEA, staff members are talking about these basic issues. Why does my less experienced colleague get paid $20,000 more than me? Who has my back when my boss verbally abuses me? Shouldn’t there be a fair and consistent approach to staff layoffs and staff? Why aren’t employees involved in decisions to change their health and retirement plans?

Without a union, these employees have concluded, you don’t have a strong voice. Important decisions that affect your job, your wallet, your family, your health, your life… are made without you. And, as public colleges and universities become increasingly like private corporations, focused on glossy metrics and profit measures, staff members and support employees need that strong voice more than ever.

At the University of Vermont, faculty members are unionized. Campus security guards are unionized, as are groundskeepers and maintenance workers. In fact, the only group of employees that don’t enjoy a seat at the table and the protections of a union are staff members, the mostly women who show up every day and keep the university open for business.

And here’s a lesson: When administrators are looking to cut corners on health and retirement plans and spend less on employee salaries, you don’t want to be part of the only non-unionized group on campus. While unionized faculty “were able to address budget cuts and say, ‘here are ways you can cut spending without cutting positions,’” noted Michele Patenaude, a circulation manager in the university library, staff didn’t have that voice or power. Their colleagues lost their jobs. Their benefits were changed without their input.

“When hard financial times came, it was on our back that the university made its cuts,” said Maciejewski. Maybe you thought you were going to retire with a pension in five years? Turns out it might be 15, thanks to changes in the retirement system that the university recently put into place without warning—and without the input of affected employees. Louise Lynch, a grants administrator in the college of education and social services, will be nearly 70 before she can retire, she said. “They’re betting on people not staying that long,” she surmised.

At the same time, the university also shifted an increasing cost of health benefits onto its staff employees. “I’m essentially making less money than I was seven years ago,” Maciejewski figured. (And, at $31,500 a year, Louise Lynch is still making less money than less-experienced colleagues with the exact same job description.)

But, to be clear: what’s driving the UVM staff to unionize isn’t money. “I don’t make a lot of money, but I’m not driven by money. I’m driven by a need for fairness and process,” said Patenaude. There is no process for staff layoffs at UVM, she noted. There is no process to fairly and transparently classify jobs, award salaries, or manage benefits. Let’s say you have a bad boss: Well, good luck to you, because there is no grievance process either. “You just have to lay low, keep your fingers crossed, and hope for a way out,” she said.

The Way Out

In mid-September, nearly 800 UVM staffers found a better way forward: a union. In the largest union election ever held by the Vermont Labor Relations Board, a majority of non-exempt employees (those who can earn overtime pay) voted decisively for union representation. Next, in a follow-up election to be scheduled sometime this fall, staff employees will choose whether to affiliate with the University Staff Union-NEA, an affiliate of Vermont-NEA. Patenaude, one of USU-NEA’s leaders, is hopeful. They’re organized, they’re energetic, and they have the strength and resources of a national union on their side.

“We are thrilled at being one step closer to having a union, having an equal voice at the bargaining table…and (having) the ability to negotiate for our pay, our benefits, and our working conditions,” she said. If successful, the remaining non-unionized UVM staff members, another 800 “exempt” employees, likely will follow suit this spring with their own union election.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, hundreds of other classified staff employees at Mount Hood Community College (MHCC) in Oregon already have voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with NEA. The MHCC Classified Employees Association, which had previously operated as an independent, unaffiliated union, formally joined the Oregon Education Association (OEA) in September after its leaders decided they needed more muscle during contract negotiations.

“We talked to OEA, we also talked to a couple of private attorneys,” said Cathy Nichols, local president. And then, after presenting the options, Nichols asked her members: Who would you rather have with you at the bargaining table? They voted decisively for OEA in June, and then OEA approved their affiliation more recently. “It’s a good move for us, I believe,” said Nichols, as she looks ahead to contract negotiations beginning in January.

The Mount Hood unit includes just about 200 employees—from groundskeepers to computer lab technicians to people who work in financial offices, like Nichols. “We are literally the ones who keep the college running,” she said. But, she added, without a state and national union at their back, it doesn’t always seem like the hard work of staff has been well recognized.