Five Unions Rally at UVM, Uniting Across Issues and Bargaining Units

Today, five unions representing many of the workers at the University of Vermont and the UVM Medical Center met to rally and support each other’s common struggles. Members of UVM Staff United, United Academics, and Graduate Students United marched from the steps of Howe Library, next to the Palestine solidarity encampment, to the Fleming Green. Moments later, dozens of UVM Medical Center workers — nurses represented by the Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals (VFNHP) and staff represented by UVMMC Support Staff United — arrived to cheers as the assembled workers gathered in a large circle roughly 200-strong.

Baxter Worthing, a UVM GSU member and plant biology student, took the mic first and offered an extended metaphor between unions and ivy, arguing that if ivy is a traditional symbol of prestige at a university, campus unions should be, too. “We workers that make academia tick, we and our well-being, our capacity for collective action: that’s the new symbol of prestige that universities should be looking for,” he said.

Deb Snell, VFNHP President, spoke next, emphasizing the burden of the cost of living crisis facing her fellow nurses: “We’re at the table, bargaining for our lives right now.” She said even the subsidized housing that the Medical Center built was too costly: “the discounted rate for a studio [apartment] is over $1500 per month. Our medical center, our university, they can do better. They should do better. They need to do better.” Based on the union’s research of nurses’ pay at other academic medical centers with a similar cost of living, “we need a 40% raise,” she said.

Eric Lindstrom, United Academics Vice President and a professor in the English department, spoke next and highlighted the increased class sizes and reduced job security of the ones teaching those classes. Class sizes “are not getting bigger; they’re fricking full. It’s like boarding an airline every time.” Over the past decade, the percentage of non-tenured faculty teaching classes has grown from 40% to 60%, and salaries have lost ground due to the unprecedented inflation of the past several years. “What do we want? Living wages,” he said. “Not executive raises.”

For executives, “the system is working,” UVM Staff United’s Jamie Graham said. “The system for us is broken. And that’s why we are here today, stronger together. There are a lot more of us than there are of them,” they said to cheers from the crowd. Graham then read out a letter of support by Burlington Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak. 

UVMMC Support Staff United President Heather Bauman spoke next, wearing a red “proud union member” shirt and “Labor for Palestine” button. She described the conditions that led her and her co-workers to unionize and negotiate their first contract. “We were working without job security. We were working in unsafe conditions. And we were getting our health care through Medicaid,” Bauman said. “So we sat down with each other and started to talk about what we wanted, what we needed from this essential work that we were doing. And we started to demand that they pull the wages up out of the gutter, that they see us for the essential part of the team that we are, and that they respect our contribution.”

Thanks to their first contract, the starting wage in their bargaining unit went from $15 per hour to $20, but a healthcare plan still has yet to be won. “You’re looking at a union that has almost 1000 members who can’t afford to have the services that we provide to our community,” Bauman said.

UVM Staff United Co-president Claire Whitehouse spoke next. “We love our jobs, we love our students, but working at UVM is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Staff leave for higher wages elsewhere and it’s becoming harder and harder to hire.” Whitehouse ended her remarks on a positive note: “But it doesn’t have to be this way. I see a future where UVM and UVM Med Center are places with good union jobs for faculty, staff, grad students, nurses, techs, and vital support staff,” she said.

“I love that we are in a circle,” UVM Staff United Co-president Ellen Kaye said as the event wrapped up. “This is not insignificant. We are not enclosed in hierarchies here. We’re in a circle where we have each other’s back, where we are together, where we can see each other, that’s the way we do it.”

After the rally dispersed, workers from each of the five unions visited the Palestine solidarity encampment. In the face of threats against students by administrators, members of each campus union have, either collectively or as individuals, expressed support and solidarity with the encampment and students’ demands.

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