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News :: Education
Graduate students at UMass-Amherst say no contract, no peace
by Bryan G. Pfeifer
Email: bgp (nospam) iacboston.org
04 Apr 2005
Modified: 12:31:15 AM
On March 31 over 600 students-graduate and undergraduate-union allies and campus community members answered the call of the Graduate Employee Organization, UAW Local 2322 at UMass-Amherst for a "March for fair wages, healthcare, benefits and childcare," in response to the administration’s refusal to bargain in good faith.
With support of progressive campus community...
Graduate students say no contract, no peace
Build largest march and rally in years
By Bryan G. Pfeifer
AMHERST, MA – Facing multi-faceted assaults by the administration and its class allies, students and progressive campus community members realizing the historic importance and national implications of this struggle, responded March 31 with one of the largest mass action in years.
Over 600 students-graduate and undergraduate-union allies and campus community members answered the call of the Graduate Employee Organization, UAW Local 2322 for a "March for fair wages, healthcare, benefits and childcare," in response to the administration’s refusal to bargain in good faith.
"It’s increasingly clear that the concessions demanded by the University in negotiations are ideological and not driven by a need to cut costs. We’re talking about sums that represent less than 1/1000th of the University’s budget. There will be no peace until we get a contract," said Meghan E. McDonough, GEO Family Issues Advocate, speaking on the steps of the Student Union while holding her infant daughter.
GEO, with a membership of 2,400, has been working without a contact since July 1, 2004 and has been bargaining with the administration for over a year. Other campus unions are in similar circumstances. The administration, despite movement by GEO, continues to propose real wage and healthcare cuts, the abolishment of healthcare benefits for currently covered same-sex couples, and drastic increases in childcare costs.
Continuing its rich history in this area, GEO extended a hand of unity and solidarity to undergraduate students on campus by encouraging them to participate and by inviting their newly elected Student Government Association president Pavel Payano to speak at the rally. There are about 18,000 undergraduates and 6.000 graduate students on campus.
The increasing attacks on all students and campus workers, most notably the administration’s recent proposal to restructure independent undergraduate student organizations by placing them under the administration’s control and the increasing power of the UMass Foundation, is a focal point of the undergraduate student struggle led by the Take Back UMass coalition which works with GEO (www.takebackumass.com) (http://foundation.umass.edu).
"What we see happening at UMass is part of national, racist, right-wing-led, neoliberal agenda. UMass wants to depict us as students, not workers, so they can outsource faculty positions to graduate students to save money," said Cassandra Engeman, GEO member and a Labor Studies graduate student.
"As a result, UMass is witnessing the decline in the number of tenure-track faculty and therefore, the decline in quality education available to undergraduate students, who are being asked to pay more and more in tuition and fees. This isn’t only happening at UMass; it is happening to public universities throughout the country," added Engeman.
No contract, no peace!
Taking over campus at lunch hour with a blocks-long march from the Student Union, a building won as a result of campus rebellions in the late 1960s, to the Whitmore administration building, a cacophony of noise could be heard throughout campus as students made use of whistles, make-shift drums of pots, pans and five-gallon empty water containers.
Adding to this was honks of support from dozens of cars along the campus’ main street as the march wound its way through numerous crosswalks stopping traffic enmasse while GEO members chanted slogans like, "Whose school, our school," and "No contract, No peace," through bullhorns. A sea of blue "No contract: No peace placards" and others such as "Students and workers unite for justice," and "Undergraduates support graduate students," could be seen for blocks. Willard the rat also made an appearance (see picture).
Upon entering the administration building, students, being filmed by campus police and undercover agents and defying a new so-called picketing code, proceeded to the offices of Chancellor John Lombardi and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Gargano to deliver petitions supporting GEO and undergraduate students.
Many union members, labor federations, councils, and worker/community organizations participated including AFSCME, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the Massachusetts Society of Professors, members of Local 2322's Executive Staff including President Ron Patenaude and Vice President John McGrath, the Million Worker Movement, the National Writers Union, Pioneer Valley Labor Council President Ron Brown, SEIU, UFCW, the University Staff Association and U.S. Labor Against the War.
The March 31 action is part of an ongoing GEO contract campaign which continues to use varying tactics such as grade-ins, roving pickets, rank-and-file attendance at bargaining sessions, media strategies and building support in the undergraduate and larger campus community through leaf letting and other outreach.
If the administration continues its bad faith bargaining, GEO is planning civil disobedience actions for April 21 and 22 as well as other escalating actions.
Most unionized graduate students make on average about $15 dollars an hour but this is only for 10 or 20 hour appointments. International students are restricted to 20 hours of work a week by Department of Homeland Security regulations and graduate students do not receive grants. Thus these student-workers who keep the university running efficiently by teaching, grading and conducting numerous forms of research are either barely surviving, increasingly going into debt with more student loans, restricting their studies, or having to end their education altogether. Having a union that represents their interests effectively and legally is what keeps many of these student-workers in school, especially the working-class and poor students of color.
According to GEO’s website (www.geouaw.org), if the administration’s current contract proposals were implemented, a typical graduate student’s family could be paying $5,000 more next year for the same childcare services and health care costs would quadruple over the next three years from $0 to a projected $508. The administration would also have complete control over the benefits offered and could change them at any time without negotiations, according to their proposal.
"While these dollar amount may not sound enormous, many of our members live below the poverty line and are not permitted by law to work more than part-time. These increases mean the difference between just scraping by and going into deep debt," said Jen Turner, GEO president.
The administration backed down from its threat of impasse in early March after GEO reminded them that it’s a violation of Massachusetts labor law to do this without fully answering all union information requests which university representatives have consistently failed to do and for which GEO has filed a unfair labor practice.
The unity and solidarity displayed on March 31 is what’s needed to win a good GEO contract, defeat the administration’s student organization restructuring plans and to continue building a progressive united front at UMass and nationally, stressed Engeman.
"If the entire progressive academic community-faculty, staff, undergraduates, and graduates and their allies-do not get together to fight the semi-privatization of our public schools and other attacks especially on the working-class and people of color, education will cease to be a public service and will become a commodity that only the rich can afford."
– 30 –
Call or write Chancellor John Lombardi to demand: "Good contracts now" and "Hands off student organizations:"
Chancellor John Lombardi
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Amherst, MA 01003
lombardi (at) umass.edu
Pfeifer is a Labor Studies graduate student and GEO member at UMass-Amherst.
(c) 2005 Bryan G. Pfeifer. Article may be used in full or in part provided full attribution is given to author.
Union labor donated.
This work is in the public domain