This commentary is by Ellen Kaye of Barre, Alison Nihart of Middlebury and Rachel Wallace-Brodeur of Grand Isle, UVM staff members who are part of the Staff United bargaining team.

On Oct. 13, our newly organized staff union at the University of Vermont, UVM Staff United, enters into negotiations over our first contract with the UVM administration. This moment has been years in the making, and staff are ready to come to the table with proposals for improvements that will make meaningful changes in our working lives.11

This past spring, in two separate elections, UVM staff voted to formalize the union we had been building for the preceding year and a half. When the ballots were counted, the will of our colleagues was clear: 73% in the clerical, technical and specialized unit, and 80% in the professional unit, voted in favor of our union. UVM Staff United, represented by AFT Vermont, is now the largest union at the second-largest employer in the state of Vermont.

Given the overwhelming support for our union, we are heading into negotiations with a mandate from our colleagues to make the improvements we have collectively defined as priorities.

UVM staff fill diverse and critical roles: We provide administrative support for academic departments, process student financial aid, and manage the university’s business transactions.  We support students, manage athletics events, promote equity and inclusion in our campus culture, and run educational programming in communities throughout Vermont. We conduct research, maintain lab equipment, support IT and networking, and provide professional development for the campus community. Many of us are graduates of UVM, and some of us came to Vermont specifically for UVM.

We want UVM to be a place where undergraduate students can learn, grow and thrive in a supportive residential campus experience, and where graduate students can deepen their academic expertise and professional skills. We also want Vermonters of all ages to see UVM as a valuable resource for research-based information and educational programming.

UVM cannot succeed without staff, but recent decisions by the UVM administration have indicated that they do not see investments in staff as a strategy for the university’s success.

In June 2020, the UVM administration cut salaries for a majority of UVM staff and froze salaries for our lowest-paid staff for more than seven months, while also rescinding our right to collect earned paid leave should we leave UVM. 

Combined with a rapidly increasing cost of living (the Consumer Price Index from July 2020 to July 2021 increased more than triple the average of the past 12 years), we are worse off financially than we were before the pandemic.

These cuts came at a time when many of us were asked to provide critical pandemic response support to our campus and other communities we serve across the state. Not surprisingly, we have seen many colleagues leave UVM for better professional opportunities. Due to a university-imposed hiring freeze, refilling these roles is often difficult and remaining staff are expected to fill in gaps, adding additional layers of responsibility on top of already full plates.

Against the backdrop of these cuts and lack of investment, UVM is in very strong financial health. Consistently posting positive revenues over expenses, UVM is in a strong position with cash and investments, with fall 2021 being a record-breaking enrollment year for first-year students (17.5% more out-of-state students than the average of the previous five years), ensuring another profitable year.

After years of wage stagnation for UVM staff and an incredibly difficult year during which staff bore the brunt of UVM’s fiscal caution, now is the time for the administration and UVM Staff United to work together to show our community what it looks like to truly value employees.

As we sit down to bargain with the UVM administration for our wages, benefits and working conditions, we know that we will also be indirectly bargaining for our community at large. 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. 

Creating a transparent wage scale with annual cost-of-living raises at or above the rising cost of living will set a transparency standard for our community. Creating a model that provides equity adjustments for staff who have been consistently undervalued will show our community that justice for financial inequities is attainable.

We need our community’s support. We know that, despite UVM’s strong financial state, the administration may rebuff our proposals for more transparency, equity and a livable wage for all. They might claim that investing in staff will harm students or delay important investments in other areas. 

Together, we must resist the narrative of scarcity and false choice. What’s good for staff is good for students, and a happy and healthy workforce will ensure a stronger UVM for years to come.

We are committed to the university’s mission of public education, research and outreach. We do our work because we care deeply about our students, our research, and our campus community. We know UVM can be a place where we can be proud of the work we do and feel supported in our professional lives. This first contract is an important step toward realizing that vision.

Pieces contributed by readers and newsmakers. VTDigger strives to publish a variety of views from a broad range of Vermonters.