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We get what we have the power to take

Reports from the front

Paul Fleckenstein reports on the victory by the University of Vermont Staff United in securing their first union contract.

After two decades, and four unsuccessful attempts at unionizing, 1,300 staff members of the University of Vermont (UVM) Staff United union won their first contract in May. Even better, two months of escalating protests, militancy, and disruption achieved substantial gains for campus workers.

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 UVM bosses claimed an economic crisis and levied large pay cuts on many of the non-unionized staff. While UVM later rescinded the pay cuts, this was, according to many UVM workers, the decisive act that tipped the balance in favor of the union’s successful campaign. By organizing primarily through Zoom and using mail-in ballots, the union won the election last Spring.

UVM has been a notorious low–wage employer, and has carried out a callous years-long restructuring agenda that has decimated liberal arts and heightened productivity demands on administrative staff. Following national trends toward the neoliberalization of higher education, UVM has high-salaried administrative bloat at the top and tens of millions in reserves. Budgeting practices impoverish unwanted departments, increase workloads, and prioritize the polytechnique transformation of a historically liberal arts school. Efforts to fend off draconian cuts to departments and majors since 2020 have largely been unsuccessful, with the faculty union, United Academics, playing a weak hand with a conservative strategy. Both unions, the new UVM Staff United, and United Academics, are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

This spring, UVM Staff United mounted an increasingly militant contract campaign following months of the administration’s stonewalling. Recent UVM graduate Sophie Kogut told a press conference/rally announcing the 792-14 vote in favor of contract ratification: “We don’t get what we ask for from our employers; we get what we have the power to take.” As a research assistant, the ratified contract increases Kogut’s annual pay from $30k to $40k retroactive to last year. Kogut invoked the struggle of Starbucks and Amazon workers and described the win as part of a broader class fight.

Another union and bargaining team leader, Ellen Kaye, said the union’s contract gains and the organizing strategy can be a model for other workers.

The contract immediately raises hundreds of members’ pay to at least $20/hr. At UVM there are still over 200 unionized service and maintenance workers in another bargaining unit under that level. Kaye asked, “Is our struggle over?” Union members responded with a loud “No.” “We expect that more workers in our community will start demanding their rights to livable wages as well, and when they do, we will have their backs,” Kaye said. She added, “We also hope that this sets a new standard for our community.”

UVM Staff United leaders listed the actions, involving at least a couple hundred staff, plus many students and some community supporters at times, that tipped the balance in bargaining. These included a couple of large rallies, a tent encampment by dozens of students in front of the student center, engaging with visiting parents and newly admitted students on campus tours, and an audacious interruption of a lecture by UVM President Suresh Garimella by a large contingent of workers to present a petition highlighting low wages, second jobs, and housing and food insecurity for staff workers. There were also several large pickets in front of President Garimella’s house and office, free food from the People’s Kitchen on the President’s lawn, the video cornering of CFO Richard Cate, UVM’s budget-cutting henchperson, and a campaign of calls to the workplaces of UVM’s Board of Trustees.

UVM Staff United also joined a large student protest against campus sexual assault several weeks ago, and forefronted gender and racial justice. In a workplace disproportionately women, social reproduction demands were priorities. The contract won eight weeks of paid parental leave (up from zero), domestic partner benefits, and the creation of a sick leave bank for workers to continue to receive compensation for lengthener healthcare-related absences..Wage increases were progressive with all workers getting at least a $3,500 bump, and more if required to reach the new $20/hr threshold. Juneteenth is now a paid holiday. Not resolved this time, though, were issues around the wage compression and greater pay raises for longer-tenured, higher-paid workers, which will need to be taken up in future bargaining. This will require further reprioritization and budgeting adjustments on the part of the UVM.

As a former worker at UVM, and participant in a past unsuccessful unionization effort, this win is gratifying. No one thanked the University for its cooperation in reaching an agreement. Previous mistaken notions of union-management cooperation in some past campaigns had faded away. We get what we have the power to take.

While there were some discussions of job actions to win staff demands for just distribution of UVM resources (actions pushing the boundaries of the bureaucratic frameworks constraining many public-sector unions like in Vermont that doesn’t have any legal allowances for striking), big gains were won without that this time. The workers willingness to take the fight to the boss, their broad commitment to class demands, their taking seriously gender and racial oppression, and the creative initiative and tactics demonstrated by the union (and supported by staff organizers) were all remarkable. This is an important win to build on and for us to learn from.

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Paul Fleckenstein View All

Paul Fleckenstein is a member of the Tempest Collective in Burlington, Vermont.