BURLINGTON - Campus activists attempting to unionize some 1700 University of Vermont employees say union-busting campus administrators are standing in the way. UVM's largest class of non-union workers -clerical, technical and professional staff - are being represented by a homegrown effort called United Staff @UVM. Its organizers are calling upon the administration to make a "public statement of neutrality" toward the union, similar to one adopted in February by Rutgers University in New Jersey.
In a letter to locally elected officials, including some Burlington city councilors and Sen. Bernie Sanders, United Staff is soliciting support in asking the administration not to use "obstructive legal maneuvers" or "further participate in an anti-union campaign." The letter, which has not yet been sent, has already garnered at least 172 staff signatures.
Virtually all of UVM's other non-managerial staff are already represented by organized labor. The campus police force joined the Teamsters in 1996; the next year, the service and maintenance workers joined the United Electrical Workers; United Academics UPV/AFT organized the full-time faculty in 2001; two years later, the adjunct faculty followed suit.
If approved, the new bargaining unit would represent the largest, most diverse and farthest-flung group of university employees, including library personnel, lab technicians, bookstore workers and UVM Extension staff.
It's not the group's first organizing effort. The American Federation of Teachers, a national union, tried to drum up support on campus for about a year and a half. In January 2006, the local organizing committee rejected the AFT's final proposal on grounds it was too rushed and impersonal and didn't adequately address enough of the group's wide-ranging needs.
After the AFT pulled out, United Staff was left to pick up the pieces, with few resources and no full-time organizers. It lost access to the electronic database AFT had created, as well as the national union's half-million-dollar war chest.
Since then, United Staff has gone decidedly grassroots, relying upon on-campus "basic needs bake sales" to raise money, and marshalling support from student activists such as the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP). Local community groups such as the Vermont Workers Center and the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign are also lending support.
"We're proudly organizing independently," notes Jennifer Larsen, a senior research technician in UVM's geology department. "And, we've been riding on [SLAP's] coattails, even when they're not wearing any," a reference to SLAP's nude protest last month in support of a campus-wide livable wage.
Larsen, who's been a UVM employee for more than 18 years, says the group has based its current organizing efforts on a model used by the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which also eschewed a nationally affiliated union.
"It's a very different organizing philosophy," adds Marilyn Eldred, a department administrative coordinator in the UVM physics department "We wanted a very collaborative approach to working with the administration."
While United Staff "doesn't have a lot of feet on the ground," Larsen says they conduct their organizing activities in their spare time. That's been a real challenge, she says, since nearly all of their potential members work full time, in offices and laboratories spread throughout the campus and even across the state.
"We organize when we go to meetings, when we're at lunch, when we're on break and when we're standing in line for coffee or at the grocery store," Larsen says. "It's community building, and it's very slow."
It's also very susceptible to union-busting tactics. One distinct advantage of having a national union partner is the out-of-state ammo it brings to the table.
The organizing committee's request for a public statement of neutrality was borne out of concerns of some employees that the administration has already positioned itself as firmly opposed to another union. Back in 2005, the administration sent out a series of emails to supervisors and staff clarifying when and where organizing activities were permitted.
In one, Lee Stewart, then-interim director of human resources, warned staff not to "disrupt the workplace" or "harass staff" on university grounds. Any [organizer] who refused a supervisor's request to leave the premises, Stewart wrote, could expect in action from the human resources office, or even campus police.
In fact, Eldred recalls an incident in which Sue Thomas, a retired library worker who was helping the AFT with the 2005 union drive, was distributing invitations to an after-work union function when a supervisor told her to leave the building. According to Eldred, Thomas complied. However, the supervisor later contacted campus police and Thomas received an email from UVM Police Chief Gary Margolis.
"I was also told to leave a department when I was in there talking to people a couple of years ago," Eldred recalls. "The supervisor came marching out and said, 'You're not supposed to be in here doing this.' I said, 'Are you asking me to leave?' and he said, 'Yes.'"
James Haslam is director at the Vermont Workers Center. He says that if UVM is intimidating its employees from discussing union issues in the workplace, it could be violating the law. "If you're not allowed to go around and talk about Girl Scout cookies or the Patriots game, then you might not be allowed to talk about a union," Haslam explains. "But if you're allowed to discuss any of those things, they can't discriminate."
And, while the administration's emails may sound like "yesterday's news," they have a residual discouraging effect. Larsen points out that only two weeks ago, she was discussing the union with a UVM Extension employee, who asked, "Are we even allowed to be having this conversation right now?
"It's that chill. It's very effective," Larsen adds. "In a population that already feels very vulnerable in this time in our culture, where the employee-employer relationship is becoming much more detached . . . people feel like they can be dropped at a whim."
Enrique Corredera is UVM's director of communications. He wasn't aware of the 2005 incident involving Chief Margolis. But while UVM doesn't see the need for another union on campus, he says the administration recognizes workers' right to organize.
"Our position has been that we consider ourselves to be an excellent employer and that we offer a very competitive compensation package and very good working conditions," Corredera says. "From the administration perspective, we don't see the benefit of seeking unionization for those employees who are not unionized."
Corredera won't comment on whether the administration will adopt a statement of neutrality, except to say, "It's something we'll take under advisement."
Rutgers University took a different tack. The university's administration and its most disparate labor group worked in cooperation to come up with a contract. It was ratified last weekend.