UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

UMass Boston Unions Continue to Fight Against Cutbacks

Anneta Argyres

Since September of last year, the unions at the University of Massachusetts Boston have had their hands full fighting cutbacks that would mean major losses to employees of the university—the professional staff especially.

But what does this mean for students?

Depending on how negotiations between the unions and management go and how the university addresses finances, students could see a rise in tuition and fees in the upcoming school year.

“We are a collective voice for the employees here. Sometimes that means working collaboratively with management to solve problems, sometimes it means engaging in more of a struggle for who’s going to win,” Anneta Argyres, Vice President of the Professional Staff Union (PSU), said. “It’s a battle—in every workplace there is a power dynamic.”

UMass Boston is home to five organized groups of workers: campus police, graduate students, faculty, professional staff, and classified staff. All contracts with the university expired June of 2014, and Argyres explained that it is normal to not have renewed contracts set up in time for that date. Bargaining is a typical part of the process.

“What was unusual this time around for all of us was the level of givebacks that the university was looking for. Cuts to sick time, cuts to vacation time, making it more difficult to access paid medical leaves … that was a level of attack that we have not felt in recent years. It was very surprising,” Argyres told the Mass Media.

However, while all of the unions were asked for givebacks, the PSU received the brunt of the blow. One of the major demands was giving up compensatory time. If professional staff are required to work weekends, nights, or any hours that put significant time above the typical work week, they receive either an increase in pay or equivalent time off. With the elimination of compensatory time, the university could force staff to work as many hours as deemed necessary without any form of compensation.

The PSU is also still facing the issue of potentially receiving lower raises than everybody else. Most state workers receive a 3 percent cost of living raise starting last July. The university is trying to take a chunk of the pool of money that should be for these raises and use it for merit pay, which would mean some employees would receive money over others. The PSU is willing to discuss the existence of a merit pay system so long as it is done with additional money. However, they feel that the 3 percent raise should be guaranteed equally across the board.

“Most of this, the university has stepped away from. They have given up the attack on compensatory time, the attack on sick and vacation time, but they have not stepped away from the attack on the cost of living increase and there are two other big articles they are trying to weaken the current language to give management broader rights. We are closer, but not quite there,” Argyres said.

One of the biggest instances of potential space for abuse is an issue the unions call “doc-in-the-box,” which is a management proposal for the right, at any time, to send an employee to be mentally or physically evaluated for fitness to work by a doctor paid for by management. While it is common for contracts to require medical clearance to return to work after a sick leave, the doc-in-the-box plan can be problematic for employees.

Argyres cited an instance of abuse that happened at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where a couple of bargaining groups agreed to the doc-in-the-box plan. One employee took leave to take care of a sick parent, and when she tried to return, her supervisor refused and told her she had to receive clearance from a psychiatrist.

As it turns out, before she went on leave for a situation that had nothing to do with her own health, she had filed a complaint against her supervisor for bullying her. Argyres and her team worry that such abuse would occur at Umass Boston as well.

Argyres emphasized how the problems with funding raises affects not only staff, but students as well.

Although the legislature gave the university plenty of money for the operating budget this year, it did not specifically set aside the 13 million dollars needed to pay raises across the entire Umass system in its own pool and explicitly tell the university the money was meant for raises. Instead, the money was clumped in with the collective 500 million dollar pool.

“We think there is a little bit of a game being played by President Caret of the Umass system. From our analysis, in giving the university up to 521 million dollars this year, the legislature kept its promise to give at least 519 million dollars so the university wouldn’t raise tuition and fees for students, which is an 8.2 percent raise from last year. So we think there is ample money there to pay the negotiators’ raises,” Argyres said.

“The university administration has gone further and said, if the staff and faculty insist on getting the raises that the university already negotiated, settled, and signed contracts for, then they will raise tuition and fees. So we think this is a really cynical and divisive position to take when they are sitting on a budget that is the biggest state budget they have ever received. The legislature has more than matched the money the university pulls in from undergraduate student tuition and fees. Yet they still refuse to pay the raises unless the legislature coughs out another 11 million dollars or they raise tuition and fees.”

A couple of explanations given by administration for what is happening with the money include hiring new faculty and books for the library. However, these two costs have been easily covered the last few years, and there is already a library fund paying for the books.

Argyres believes administration is keeping quiet on the real hole that they are funneling money into: debt from construction.

“It is a game Caret is playing. He wants that 11 million dollars and he is going to hold the employees hostage and make this threat to the students. We really want to call that out and do not think he is being a good steward of tax payer money or being a good leader of the university,” Argyres said.

“There is a big fear for this next year that in Governor Baker’s proposed budget, he isn’t continuing what Governor Patrick started in this 50/50 split. He hasn’t proposed appropriating to the university sufficient money for the university not to raise tuition and fees. So the university is already in a position to decide if it’s getting enough money from its legislature and from revenues. One sixth of the money coming to the university is from legislature. Much more than that is money from student tuition and fees. So there’s going to be a big question students should pay attention to: given the finances of this institution, should tuition and fees go up? And what is this impact on families and young adults trying to come to school? This is a question we want students to take seriously.”