Posted In: Educator Voices, Higher Education, Multimedia, Uncategorized, Vermont, Workers' Rights

University staff organize for a voice at the table in Vermont

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by Mary Ellen Flannery/photo above via University Staff Union on Facebook

Things can change very quickly for non-unionized employees, noted Louise Lynch, an office worker at the University of Vermont, in a recent letter to her colleagues. Retirement benefits disappear. Salary cuts are imposed. Sometimes co-workers pack up their desks and disappear.

“With so much at stake for our future, I at least want a voice in the decision making process. Many in the non-represented staff are becoming part of the working poor,” Lynch told her colleagues.

The answer? A union, of course—with the ability to represent its members at the bargaining table and speak with a strong, coherent voice. “By ensuring we have a strong, local and sustainable union USU-NEA can be our best way to ensure we have a seat at the table about our economic future,” she concluded.

Late last year, the University Staff Union-NEA, a group representing academic staff at the University of Vermont and working in partnership with Vermont-NEA, filed a petition with the Vermont Labor Relations Board (VLRB) for a union election. Its first-phase efforts directly involve about 400 front-line office staff, but eventually the election pool will expand to all 1,500-plus staff at the state university.

Other groups on campus, like full- and part-time faculty, service and maintenance workers, and campus police, already are unionized—and so they have had a voice at the table when it comes to the shouldering recent state budget cuts at UVM. But for years, academic staff members have relied on the goodwill of administrators to get a fair shake. Consequently, they’ve gone three years without a pay increase, had changes to their retirement plan foisted upon them without consultation, and also suffered numerous staff layoffs.

As working conditions continue to erode, “this is not the same university that I started at seven years ago,” noted one office staff worker.

But in an economy and small state where good jobs are rare, USU-NEA leaders note that it is understandable that UVM staff feel they can’t stand up and ask questions like, “is this fair?” and “why are the UVM staff the only ones who are being so deeply impacted by these fiscal decisions?”

Without a union, employees have no job protection. With a union, they’ll have the ability to negotiate a contract, which will create a set of legally binding conditions around job security, pay, working conditions, and more. The first step on this road is the election, not yet scheduled, which USU-NEA must win with 50 percent plus one of the eligible voters.

“We’re really excited to add UVM staff to our ranks,” said VT-NEA President Martha Allen on a recent visit to the Burlington campus. “Remember this is your union! Our mission is to give you the tools to do your job as best as you can.”

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