Issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education
In the April 26, 2002, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the most popular and widely read source of news, commentary and job listings for university faculty and administrators, Interim Chancellor Williams wrote an article reiterating the university’s position regarding the R A union. Williams wrote, “The University of Massachusetts plans to seek judicial review of the finding by the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission that undergraduates appointed by the university as resident assistants in the dormitories are eligible to unionize” (Williams, 2002).
In the article, Williams identified three major concerns:
- While the university had collegial and cooperative relations with other labor unions, the relationship with the UAW (the same union that sought to represent the R As), which represented graduate student assistants, had been contentious. “Our interactions have been fraught with significant difficulties that we have not experienced with other unions,” Williams wrote. “Those difficulties have included contentious negotiations; the union’s insistence on bargaining over non- employment and social issues … that are not proper subjects for bargaining; and a disproportionate number of grievances.”
- Negotiating with students was inappropriate. “Negotiating with students at any level is fraught with what I call ‘status dissonance’—the inherently illogical fit between student status and collective bargaining,” Williams wrote. “That dissonance is manifested in one of the most serious challenges we have experienced with our union of graduate student assistants: separating academic from employment issues. … I fear that their [R A] unionization would inevitably lead to demands that we bargain over matters that are entirely inappropriate
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subjects for union negotiations, such as financial aid, academic status, student conduct and discipline, and dormitory conditions and regulations.”
- The employment status of R As was intertwined with their academic status, since R As were selected based on their academic success (2.4 GPA hiring requirement), student-leadership abilities, potential as role models and the need to maintain a 2.2 GPA. Williams wrote, “I don’t believe Massachusetts public-employee collective bargaining law was ever intended to apply to such individuals” (Williams, 2002).
Wrote Williams: “It is a dangerous mistake to accede to the UAW’s attempt to characterize their efforts as nothing more than employment. And surely, the experience should not be subject to the vagaries of an election among 360 students, 34 percent of whom did not vote, 24 percent voted against the union and approximately 50 percent of whom will graduate this spring, long before this dispute will be over. Only by refusing to bargain, and then raising before the MLRC and the Massachusetts courts the question of whether a bargaining unit of undergraduates is appropriate, can we challenge this misapplication of the state public-employee collective bargaining statute. We plan to do so because the unionization of undergraduates is incompatible with our responsibility to provide a high-quality educational experience, irreconcilable with our responsibility for sound management of the campus, and extraordinarily bad public policy. And yes, because it does not make sense” (Williams, 2002).
On April 29, 2002, three days after the publication of Williams’ article, university police arrested 35 union supporters in protests throughout the campus. The protests began with a rally at 12:30 p.m. on the steps of the student union, where about 75 protestors proceeded to march to the main administration building chanting that the university was violating the law by refusing to bargain. From there, about 15 activists, including several R As, members of the GEO and other campus organizations, and individuals from other colleges, occupied the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Cevallos’ offices. Cevallos read the university’s picketing code to the protestors, which stated that students had a right to demonstrate in public spaces during work hours. However, protests should not interfere or disrupt the flow of normal business (Campbell & Eldridge, 2002, April 30). An R A protestor was contacted by cell phone and asked how long they would occupy the office. She answered, “I guess until either the university bargains with us or sets a date to bargain with us or until the police come in and take us out” (Helman, 2002, April 30).
At approximately 2:30 p.m., protestors were given a final opportunity to leave before arrests took place. Cevallos said, “I asked them repeatedly if they wanted to leave peacefully. … They chose to be arrested.” After 3 p.m., police began carrying the 15 protesters out of the building on stretchers (Brown, 2002, May 1). The protestors were carried and then walked onto a waiting bus that was cordoned off by police. A crowd of onlookers, supporters and additional protestors gathered by the police line. An officer told the crowd that if they crossed the line, they would be arrested. A group of women crossed the line and were subsequently arrested and taken onto
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the bus. About 15 more protestors linked arms and blocked the bus. They also were arrested and placed on the bus. Some of those arrested were charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, while others were charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The UAW provided funds to cover bail and offered legal counsel to those arrested (Campbell & Eldridge, 2002, April 30).
- What do you think of the university and union strategies to bring the dispute into a public forum? Is public opinion important in labor-management disputes?
- What are some of the unintended consequences of the university’s position in this dispute? From an HR perspective, is the university adding risk by contributing to an escalation of the conflict?
- Did either side convince you of their position by their words and actions?
- What recommendations would you make to the university and the union at this point in the case?
Editorials in the school newspaper were critical of the behavior of the university and the R A union. The author of one editorial wrote, “The University of Massachusetts administration is wrong. Again. The longer the R A union drama gets dragged out, the more painfully obvious that is. The R A union isn’t fighting for anything specific or earth shattering yet, it’s fighting for the right to negotiate. … We understand the frustration that must be building for our organized R As. Their rights were being trampled on” (“U. Massachusetts administration wrong in R A union debacle,” 2002, April 30).
Another editorial was more critical of the union: “There is something to be said for standing up for your principles. … However, there is a difference between standing up for your principles and commandeering the office of an administrator for several hours, getting a building closed down, and getting yourself arrested in the process. … In attempting to spread awareness about the need for the university to bargain with the R A union, the individuals who got arrested only managed to draw attention away from the actual issue. … Rather than garnering support for the cause, those arrested have only managed to embarrass themselves and make the entire union look bad. There are better ways to stand up for your principles” (“Protestors need to think twice about actions,” 2002, May 1).
The union did garner support among university faculty. On May 8, 2002, faculty members who supported the R As’ decision to unionize met with Interim Chancellor Williams to persuade her that the university should recognize and bargain with the R A union. While Williams acknowledged the faculty’s concerns, she stood by her decision to not recognize the union (Campbell, 2002, May 10).
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On May 9, 2002, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution urging the university to bargain with the R A union (Campbell, 2002, May 10). The senate, consisting of faculty-elected representatives, approved courses and academic programs and developed, recommended and reviewed policies affecting faculty, staff and students (UMass Faculty Senate, 2010a). The senate resolution stated, “The Faculty Senate urges the administration not to spend precious funds and goodwill fighting the recently elected, legally recognized R A union. We further urge the administration to move to enter into immediate discussions with R A representatives over issues arising from residence hall work. We further urge the administration to refrain from further punitive actions against R As and their student supporters fighting for the union recognition that is rightfully and legally theirs” (UMass Faculty Senate, 2010b).
Professor Ron Story, at the time president of the Faculty Senate, proposed the resolution saying, “Feelings are running very high on campus. There is great stress and tension on campus over the issue, and we think the issues that led to the R As’ decision to unionize are legitimate.” The senate action was well received by the R A union. One R A said, “I think this shows that people will stick up for what’s right. I’m happy to have the faculty on our side” (Campbell, 2002, May 10).
A day before the Faculty Senate resolution was passed, 10 protesters (composed of R As, GEO members and members of area unions) distributed flyers on campus claiming the university was engaged in illegal activity by refusing to bargain. The protesters then marched into the main administration building with symbolic arrest warrants for Interim Chancellor Williams and Vice Chancellor Cevallos. The GEO president presented the warrants stating, “We would like to impress upon the chancellor that this includes a long list of laws that the university has broken in not negotiating with the R A union.” When asked why other unions were participating in the protest, the president of the local chapter of AFSCME said, “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us” (Lamothe, 2002, May 9).
Two letters to the editor critical of Interim Chancellor Williams’ Chronicle of Higher Education article appeared in a June issue of the same publication. One of the letters, written by a UMass faculty member, said, “Williams argues that a union for undergraduate resident assistants … makes no sense (“Why a Union for R A’s Makes No Sense,” The Review, April 26). Here’s what she doesn’t tell readers: The MLRC ruled that R As are not only students but also workers. … An election was scheduled. The administration presented its case. The R As listened, then voted. The union won by a substantial majority. … Unions have been an important force in winning legislative funds and support for higher education. A union among undergraduate students could play a particularly crucial role at a time when legislative funds are at risk. Instead of seeking that support, the administration is pouring huge amounts of scarce resources into fighting state agency decisions and democratic elections” (Clawson, 2002).
While the faculty and other unions supported the R A union, the entire incident was receiving attention from Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates. In fact, the issue arose during the primary, where six of the seven primary candidates publicly supported the R As’ right to engage in collective bargaining (Kay, Ferrell & Huang, 2002).