Education

University of Vermont staff members win their 1st union contract

Rachel Wallace-Brodeur, co-lead negotiator for UVM Staff United, stands at a podium amid a crowd of union members. Photo by Ella Ruehsen/VTDigger

Updated at 4:17 p.m.

Dozens of University of Vermont employees gathered near UVM’s Waterman building Friday to celebrate ratification of UVM’s Staff United’s first-ever union contract. The three-year agreement takes effect immediately. 

The contract passed with the support of 98% of voting union members, according to union leaders, one week after a tentative agreement was reached between the bargaining union and UVM’s administration. Ellen Kaye, co-lead negotiator of the union’s bargaining team and a cataloger at Howe Library, said the vote was 792-14.

The union’s top priorities in the contract included pay and career progression. 

“We are here celebrating the culmination of a multiyear struggle for livable wages, justice and equity on the UVM campus,” Kaye told the crowd.

The union won raises retroactive to July 2021, with the back pay to be delivered to employees in lump sums. The lowest-paid staff members will receive the highest percentage pay increases over three years: 37.9%. Highest-paid staff will receive 10% increases.

The UVM Staff United contract stipulates a permanent raise for all staff members of at least $3,500. It also guarantees all members will earn at least $20 per hour, the minimum the union considers a “livable wage” for the region. 

UVM Staff United represents 1,350 clerical, technical, specialized and professional staff at the university. Systems and maintenance employees are unionized in UE Local 267, but their union has not been able to negotiate the same deal as UVM Staff United. 

Roughly 257 service and maintenance employees at UVM still do not make $20 an hour, Kaye said. UVM Staff United aims to support them through their union and hopes to raise the floor to $20 per hour as soon as possible. 

“Is our struggle over?” Kaye asked. The crowd responded to Kaye with a resounding no. 

“We expect that more workers in our community will start demanding their rights to livable wages as well, and when they do, we will have their backs,” Kaye said. “We also hope that this sets a new standard for our community.” 

Until now, UVM had no obligation to award staff raises and the minimum wage was $14 per hour. 

The contract also ensures eight weeks of paid parental leave, a $250,000 professional development fund, Juneteenth as a paid holiday, domestic partner eligibility for benefits, and a union sick bank with up to five days of paid time off available for donation annually — none of which existed prior. 

Among other protections, the contract outlines a system for discipline and discharge. Previously, staff members were considered at-will employees. The contract prevents unilateral administrative discipline and discharge, outlining a process that includes representation in disciplinary cases. It also sets processes for contract violation grievances. 

“We don’t get what we ask for from our employers; we get what we have the power to take,” said Sophie Kogut, a UVM graduate who is a member of UVM Staff United. “I am so proud to be an active member of our union, knowing that, together, we fought tirelessly for the lowest-paid workers at UVM.” 

When Kogut took a job doing biomedical research at UVM, following her graduation in 2020, she was making $30,500 a year. By the final year of this union contract, she will be earning $41,375. 

Maria Avery, a library support senior at Howe Library, said she was thrilled that the contract was ratified. Avery has worked at UVM for nearly four years, but said that, for much of that time, she was either working a second job or actively seeking one. 

“I was in the food service industry prior to the pandemic, and then lost that second part-time job, and since then have done babysitting and just kind of pieced together some extra funds here and there,” she said. “But to be able to work one job and spend my off time prioritizing myself and my family is going to be a huge relief.” 

Avery is also relieved to be able to afford snow tires for her car, among other things. 

“We all know what winters in Vermont are like; they're not always that fun, and to feel like you don't have the funds to be able to do that is pretty demoralizing,” she said. “Some joyful things too — I'm getting married in the fall and to have these funds, some extra cushion and flexibility and a wedding budget, that's nothing to shake your head at either.” 

During the last several months, the union drew hundreds of members on Zoom at bargaining sessions, organized marches and rallies, sent more than 500 letters to the board of trustees, and engaged in a variety of other efforts to bring attention to their cause. Union members also met with Vermont’s two U.S. senators, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, the latter of whom issued a statement supporting the campaign for a contract. 

“Over this past week, as we met with staff, we have heard many people ask, how did this happen? How did administration come around? Well, this wasn’t an accident,” said Rachel Wallace-Brodeur, co-lead negotiator of the union bargaining team who works in pediatrics. “For many years, including the last four with the current administration, staff were an afterthought, meager raises and no respect. Then we organized our union.” 

Richard Cate, vice president for finance and administration, said UVM was seeking a fair settlement with UVM Staff United throughout the bargaining process, according to a press release issued Friday by UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera. 

“The contract reflects UVM’s dedication to providing competitive salary and benefits, and an excellent working environment for all employees, while at the same time reinforcing our commitment to students by providing a high-quality educational experience that is financially accessible and affordable,” Cate said. 

UVM offers its staff competitive salaries and high-quality health insurance, with employee contributions scaled to income, according to the press release. The university also pays 10% of annual salary into retirement funds for eligible employees, has an award-winning employee wellness program, offers free UVM tuition for employees and their dependents, and contributes toward dental and long-term disability plans, school officials said in the release.

UVM Staff United leaders said they are still formatting the contract itself and plans to make the document publicly available in the coming weeks. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story partially misrendered a quotation from Maria Avery.

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

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