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University of Vermont staff and faculty unions chalk up important victories

26 October 2021

Across the country, public college and university administrations have used the Covid-19 crisis as an opening to remake higher education as a business: shuttering liberal arts programming, increasing executive pay, and squeezing more out of students, staff and faculty.

Staff and faculty at the University of Vermont, however, responded to this pressure by organizing -- and this spring, secured important victories in the form of a new contract for faculty and a union for the 1300-plus clerical, technical, specialized and professional staff who work at UVM.

Staff at UVM began organizing in early 2020, following years of stagnant wages amidst a rising cost of living in the region. In June 2020, the administration’s attempts to freeze salaries for the lowest-paid staff backfired, rallying support for the organizing drive and giving weight to the adage that “the boss is the best organizer”.

This spring, after hundreds of individual conversations and Zoom calls, staff overwhelmingly voted “yes” to formalize their union in two separate elections, registering 73 and 80 percent support for the union.

At the same time, members of United Academics-AFT Vermont, the union of UVM faculty, were at the bargaining table facing proposed steep cuts to wages and benefits. Faculty remained united over a year of difficult bargaining and mediation during the pandemic, and on May 10th, ratified a contract that protected salaries and benefits and guaranteed a commitment to diversity in faculty hiring and retention. 

Linguistics professor Julie Roberts reflected that, “We are confident that the strength of our union throughout collective bargaining is what prevented the administration from imposing the deep and lasting cuts to base salary and benefits that they proposed, and that our pressure helped tip the balance toward the restoration of staff pay that had been cut.”

UVM Staff United members spent the summer surveying their colleagues about bargaining priorities, and entered negotiations on October 13th with a mandate for higher wages, equity adjustments, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion measures with teeth. 

Staff are clear, though, that they’re also fighting for the community at large. In an Oct. 12th OpEd, bargaining team members Ellen Kaye, Alison Nihart, and Rachel Wallace-Brodeur pointed out that “raising wages for 1,300-plus workers will compel other employers to raise wages as they try to attract employees in a job market where workers hold more cards than ever before in recent memory.”

This fall, UVM announced it was experiencing a record-breaking enrollment for first-year students, demonstrating the university’s strong financial health. As they move forward in bargaining, members of UVM Staff United are forming Contract Action Teams (CATs) to build momentum and lay the groundwork to defend the contract once it’s been won. 

Together with students and the members of United Electrical Workers Local 267, which represents 330 service and maintenance workers on campus, AFT Vermont staff and faculty unions are building power to reject the corporate restructuring of UVM and ensure the institution sticks to its mission of providing high quality, public higher education for learners of all ages and abilities.