UVM staff union vote offers choices for a seat at the table

Sen. Philip Baruth speaks at a union rally for University of Vermont staff. Photo by Greg Guma

Sen. Philip Baruth speaks at a union rally for University of Vermont staff. Photo by Greg Guma

If a majority of the University of Vermont’s 780 non-exempt staff members vote yes on Sept. 18 and 19, they will have a union to represent them in future negotiations over wages, hours and working conditions.

At a campus rally on Thursday, Michele Patenaude, a staff member at the Bailey-Howe Library who has led the drive, argued that “it’s about time” for UVM’s only non-unionized employees to get “a seat at the table.” The Vermont Labor Relations Board (VLRB) decided in May that those in administrative, technical and specialist jobs will be eligible this time. A separate vote for the remaining 800 “professional” staff could come as soon as next year. NEA is already distributing cards to sign them up.

The September ballot has two questions. The first asks whether staff members want a union. The second offers three representation choices: a University Staff Union (USU) affiliated with the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association (NEA), the state’s largest union; United Staff, a local and unaffiliated employee association; or neither.

Three other UVM unions represent faculty, campus police, custodial and ground staff. But staff members have no one “to take a stand against cuts, to legally protect us as staff and to represent us at the table with the administration when high level decisions are made,” Patenaude argued on a Facebook page set up to build support.

“Decisions can be made about our jobs and working conditions without our input,” she said.

USU joined forces with Vermont-NEA to petition for next week’s election. Organizers point out that it will be the largest-ever union election conducted by the VLRB. The voting starts at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday morning at Billings Marsh Lounge, continuing until 5:30 p.m., and resumes for the same hours on Wednesday. The results should be available that evening.

Progressive City Councilor Max Tracy, a UVM graduate who works on campus as an admissions counselor and has been active in the labor movement for seven years, introduced the speakers at the rally. Patenaude, Vermont-NEA President Martha Allen, and others clarified the stakes.

“We are at will. We can be fired for any reason,” Patenaude said. “Budgets can be balanced on our backs.” She charged that university funds are “terribly mismanaged,” pointing to executive compensation and perks as well as $1.3 million for Engelsby House, which is being restored for use as the on-campus home of President Thomas Sullivan.

Sullivan, who started work in July, gets $417,000 plus deferred compensation, “whatever that is,” Patenaude said. His predecessor Dan Fogel received “a $600,000 golden handshake,” she added.

Sen. Philip Baruth, a UVM professor, reminded about 40 people gathered outside the Royal Tyler Theater about the “predictions of doom” that accompanied the faculty’s drive to unionize. Once they had representation, “only two things changed,” he said. “Salaries went up and benefits stopped going down.”

Baruth linked the importance of the upcoming vote with a nationwide effort “to destroy collective bargaining rights in America.” A positive vote at UVM will send a message, he said. “People will see us adding to union rights.”

Several speakers suggested that affiliating with NEA, which represents about 11,500 Vermont educators, will provide more clout in negotiations. Darren Allen, communications director for Vermont-NEA, noted in an email that United Staff “has not ever filed for an election on its own in the more than six years they’ve been trying.”

Last December Vermont-NEA organizers petitioned the VLRB for a vote involving about 431 staff members, about a fourth of the total. In response, United Staff filed an “intervening petition” to be included as an option. They also agreed with the UVM administration’s position that more staff should be included in the bargaining unit.

The VLRB decided to include 780 full and regular part-time employees and drafted two questions. The first is whether eligible staff members “wish to be in a collective bargaining unit.” It then lists the job categories that would be included. The second question is whether they want to be represented “for exclusive bargaining purposes” by United Staff, University Staff Union-NEA, or neither one.

Diana Gonzalez, a student services staffer who spoke at the rally, argued that a yes vote on question one is needed because “workers are scared that benefits will go away.”

Mail and absentee ballots must be received by the VLRB by 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 17. The vote counting will begin at 5:30 on Wednesday. If a majority say no on question one, the votes on question two won’t be counted.

However, if most eligible staff do vote yes, one of the unions listed must get a majority to prevail. Since there is also a neither-of-the-above choice, that is not a foregone conclusion. An election update on the UVM website explains, “If a simple majority of the votes under Question 2 are for ‘neither union,’ both unions on the ballot must wait one year before seeking a new election.”

If no choice wins a majority, a run-off election will be scheduled between the top two options at a date to be determined by the VLRB.

Greg Guma

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