Union Anger Surfaces

Gin Dumcius

By G. Dumcius

Angered by four years without raises and possible selective shutdowns, campus unions met to discuss “drastic” actions to get their contracts funded, the same day the state Board of Retirement denied former UMass President William Bulger his pension request.

An estimated fifty to sixty members of the Professional Staff Union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 888, which recently merged nine unions into one, met in the College of Public and Community Service’s plaza. For the last several weeks, if not months, the plaza has been the battlefield for spats between UMass Boston administration officials and the college’s faculty and staff. CPCS Faculty and staff are angry over the resignation of a dean and what they see as unfair treatment of the college by the administration. At a recent Faculty Council meeting, faculty union representative Larry Kaye put down any rumors that the unions were going to get involved in the CPCS Dean case as false, since it hadn’t been discussed.

But the same kind of anger was felt coursing through the early afternoon’s discourse, as union member after union member spoke out against budget cuts, layoffs, and the lack of contract funding.

The contracts, which included wage increases of five percent a year, were passed by the State Legislature but vetoed by then-Governor Jane Swift. It was never brought up for an override vote, something that the unions blame on House Speaker Tom Finneran and UMass President Bulger. Bulger has previously expressed support for funding the contracts, and the Board of Trustees passed a resolution in support earlier this year.

“We have to do something drastic to get their attention,” said one woman at the meeting. Drastic measures discussed included showing up at Finneran’s Statehouse office and getting arrested, and staging walkouts.

With an eye on upcoming elections, another suggested that the unions not “support anyone who doesn’t support the contracts,” adding that support should be “signed in blood.”

Diane Dujon, a union representative and welfare rights activist, stepped up to discuss furloughs, or as they are now being called, “selective shutdowns.” In a bid to save costs, the administration has suggested that the campus shut down for several days during the school year, mainly during holidays. Unions are being asked to use their vacation time, which they see as a “forced vacation.”

Many had questions about the selective shutdowns, asking how much money would be saved and how the situation was being spread equally around the university.

“I don’t trust their numbers,” said Dujon, when university figures were brought up. Dujon has taken early retirement. “If the chancellor says you’re fired, I can say, ‘Too late, I already retired,'” she said.

The unions can’t be made to use vacation time, explained union representative and local shop steward Tom Goodkind. That has to be negotiated, and will likely be a one-time only deal.

Unions held an informal, informational meeting with Mark Preble, Director of Human Resources, the day following the CPCS Plaza meeting. Both sides came away with cautiously optimistic feelings.

Preble called it a “good meeting” and “answered a lot of questions both sides have.”

Goodkind saw it as “informal, relaxed,” and “not hostile.” But it was too soon to say whether the employees would agree to selective shutdowns, he said, since they feel as though they have already given so much, with the unfunded contracts and parking fees going up again.

“Most employees are not in the mood to give anything else,” he said.

Miles down the road in Boston, the state Board of Retirement voted to reject both William Bulger’s and his brother, John Bulger’s requests for additions to their pensions. When William Bulger resigned as UMass president in early August, his severance package totaled $960,000, with an annual pension of $200,000. The request, had it been approved, would have added nearly $30,000 to the annual pension.

John Bulger’s lawyer said the rejection was a political move and plans to challenge it in court. The head of the retirement board is state Treasurer Tim Cahill, seen in some circles as a candidate for governor in 2006.

“It had nothing to do with politics, loyalty, brotherhood, or any of those issues, nothing to do with the last name,” Cahill said, according to The Boston Globe.