Nearly 800 University of Vermont staff members are slated to vote today and tomorrow. At issue? Whether or not staff members should unionize.
Faculty, campus police, custodial and grounds staff at the university are all currently represented by unions, but, according to some staff members, that leaves other employees without the resources to negotiate working conditions, salaries and hours.
"When the university starts talking about budget problems and finances, they can balance the budget on the backs of the staff because we have no recourse whatsoever," says Michele Patenaude, a staff member who works in the Bailey-Howe Library and a leader of the pro-union movement.
The UVM election is being administered by the Vermont Labor Relations Board; a third of the UVM staffers eligible for the union petitioned the board for the election to take place. Voting continues tomorrow, and Patenaude says they'll know by tomorrow evening how the election shook out.
The vote considers two questions. The first asks whether eligible staffers — defined as those who qualify for overtime pay — wish to form a union. The second gives employees three choices as to which union to join: a University Staff Union affiliated with the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association (NEA); United Staff, a local and unaffiliated employee association; or neither.
Vermont-NEA has already been heavily active in the drive to unionize, and Patenaude strongly supports joining the "affiliated" union with ties to a national organization. She says that affiliation brings added weight and influence to a union's presence on campus.
"They’ll have our back, and be able to lend us power and support and staff and resources," says Patenaude. "It’s a good deal. They’ve done a lot of that already, even though they haven’t gotten a penny in dues from us."
With 12,000 active members, Vermont-NEA is the state's largest union; the national organization is the largest union in the country, representing primarily K-12 teachers and support staff. Patenaude and other union supporters approached Vermont-NEA a few years ago, and for more than a year the coalition has rolled out meetings, events and phone banks to jumpstart the union conversation. While staffers at UVM have pushed for unions in the past, this week's election is the first-ever chance for staff members to vote on the union question.
Of course, Vermont-NEA stands to benefit from the possible addition of nearly 800 employees to its roster, should UVM staffers vote "yes" on the choice to unionize, and choose Vermont-NEA as the best option for representation.
"The bigger your union, the more strength you have for everybody in your union," says Darren Allen, Vermont-NEA's communications director. If UVM employees organize under the NEA banner, the chapter would be one of the union's largest individual locals.
UVM staffers' push to unionize comes, Allen says, as union membership nationwide is experiencing an all-time low, adding, "Unions have become a convenient whipping boy for essentially conservative politicians." But Allen is happy to report that national dissatisfaction with unions doesn't necessarily extend to Vermont. "We are very fortunate here in Vermont that there isn’t this groundswell of union- busting among the political class, among either party," he says.
Back at UVM, Patenaude says she's encouraged by the good turnout so far for the election. She says employees aren't necessarily being treated poorly; they just want a seat at the table when decisions are being made.
"We’re not looking for a $470,000 salary like the new president has, but we’re looking for some say," Patenaude says.