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A Year of Organizing

By Jennifer Berkshire, union news editor

Spring 15

When members of the Faculty Staff Union gathered outside of the Chancellor’s office on March 11, they came armed with chants, signs and a single question: what happened to the money that was appropriated to pay for faculty and staff raises? The demonstration, which resulted in Vice Chancellor Ellen O’Connor coming out to speak to protesters, was just the latest in what is shaping up to be a season of organizing.


Mary Oleskiewicz, an associate professor of music and an FSU Executive Committee member, says that she joined approximately 100 other faculty and staff members because, like 6,000 other UMass employees, she was promised a raise that UMass now says it can’t afford. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of what happened to that money, but this is about something bigger,” says Oleskiewicz: accountability. “It’s about the university lying to us about money that we’ve earned, even as top administrators somehow end up with huge raises.”


A total of 24 unions on the four UMass campuses negotiated new contracts last year, agreements that included some $13 million intended for faculty and staff pay raises. Initially UMass administrators argued that the state legislature didn’t provide money for the increases. But Ellen O’Connor, Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, gave the protesting union members a different explanation. “She basically told us that the university spent the money,” says Oleskiewicz.


Heike Schotten, an associate professor of political science, captured the moment on the FSU’s new Twitter feed, @FSU_UMB, part of an effort to share with members across campus, the union’s role in holding administrators accountable. “We were able to document in real time a very interesting exchange between faculty and the administration, including quotes from both sides,” says Schotten. In addition to providing a record of the administration’s changing account, Schotten says that the union’s social media campaign offers another way to press the university to do the right thing. “UMass is interested in using Twitter to garner positive publicity for itself, but the best way to do that is to honor their agreement. In the meantime, if they want to take this to Twitter, we can take it to Twitter.”


FSU President Marlene Kim anticipates a spring filled with actions like the one outside of the Chancellor’s office. “We’re going to be making our voices heard and our presence felt on a weekly basis until this issue is resolved,” says Kim.


The faculty and professional staff unions held an event they billed as “Coffee with Keith” on March 18th, encouraging members to enjoy donuts—and an explanation from Chancellor Motley (a no show) as to the missing raise money and the status of a still-unsettled contract with the Professional Staff Union.

Weekly actions are planned throughout the spring. For more details, see the President’s Letter along with weekly email blasts from the FSU.


The recent campus protests are only the latest in a year of action by FSU members, events that drew coverage in the Boston Globe, the Lowell Sun and the Boston Metro. In the fall, the FSU, along with sister unions across the UMass system, fought back against the university’s demands for “take-backs,” including caps on sick time and vacation days. Some 30 union activists attended the Board of Trustees meeting, holding signs and wearing stickers that read “UMass Unions United to Protect Our Rights.” Members also presented administrators with petitions bearing the signatures of thousands of UMass faculty and staff. “If you treat people well, they do a better job,” FSU President Marlene Kim told the trustees. That’s a message that FSU members will continue to take to UMass administrators regarding faculty and staff raises.


And when UMass officials and an assortment of dignitaries gathered in downtown Boston to commemorate the 50th anniversary of UMass Boston, FSU members were there too. “Campus on the Common” brought more than 100 UMass employees together to call attention to cuts and give-backs being demanded by the same administrators who were touting the school as a place to “realize the American dream.”


FSU member John Hess, senior lecturer in the English department, says that the ‘Year of Organizing’ will continue until university administrators honor the agreement they made. “The Vice Chancellor tried to reassure us that the university is on our side. They want us to go to the legislature for a special appropriation, but that’s a dodge,” says Hess. “Intellectually, we’ve won the argument so far. The question now is ‘what are they going to do?’ And can we pressure them into doing the right thing?”

Five months after FSU members ratified the 2014-2017 contract, it has yet to be funded and implemented. The FSU, in solidarity with other campus unions, continues to pressure the administration to fully fund and implement the agreements that it bargained in good faith on behalf of its members.