By Binx Perino
Two years of labor organizing started in the Service Employees International Union Local 888 office on Tremont Street when John Albert-Moseley and Anna Feder walked in to unionize the staff workers at Emerson College. John had emergency surgery shortly after being hired by the College and didn’t have the sick hours to cover his leave. Anna asked HR if she could donate her sick hours to him, and HR didn’t agree until after repeated insistence. While John recovered, the two set in motion to organize their workplace. Their first fight: a sick bank, where employees can donate their unused sick time and withdraw paid hours in case of emergency.
After several years of rigorous organizing, about 70 clerical, technical, and professional employees at Emerson College voted to unionize with the SEIU Local 888. At the time, Emerson College said in a statement that it “look[ed] forward to entering into a collective bargaining process” with the newly-elected union. By the spring of 2018, attitudes at Emerson College had changed and the union filed unfair labor charges against the College for failing to bargain in good faith. After the union ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with Emerson that same year, management at the College hired known union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis.
From 2018 to 2020, the number of students at Emerson College grew by 13% while the number of staff employees reduced by 2%. When COVID struck in the spring of 2020, the union’s fight for higher salaries and new benefits grew more difficult. Citing financial uncertainties, the College gave the staff an ultimatum: suspend retirement benefits, commuting benefits, and raises for the year, or the College would start laying off workers. Workers reluctantly agreed to the suspension for 12 months, until the College had a clearer financial outlook––in practice, this has become an indefinite delay. Since the pandemic, the shrinking staff at Emerson College is proving to make things more challenging for students who need assistance.
Though union and non-union staff employees agreed to this delay in the interest of saving as many jobs as possible, by December 2020, the College told employees that they would not have solid numbers on their financial outlook until February 2021. During a meeting in February, the College claimed that the outlook was still unclear. Administrators refused to negotiate and ignored correspondence from the union. Staff employees adjusted to unanticipated changes over a whole year of COVID, such as losing office space and upgrading personal internet plans or providers. These changes took a financial toll on many, and the College refused to reimburse staff for expenses related to the work-from-home transition.
Frustrations mounted. During the spring of 2021, Emerson administrators held a forum for staff via Zoom, where attendees discovered that they were muted and their chat feature was disabled. Staff had to submit questions to management through a Google form to be vetted before being addressed. In protest, union members added “SEIU/Proud Union Member” to their Zoom display names and changed their backgrounds to an SEIU graphic. Shortly thereafter, union members attended the May 2021 commencement with flyers and signs, asking new graduates to email management for better treatment of Emerson workers, and to sign a postcard addressed to trustees of the College.
Their protests were met with a small return: a flat 3% bonus for 2021 in recognition of their “hardships.” Union members declined the flat bonus, demanding their contractual raises. They took to the streets again in September with a petition demanding that the College return to negotiations. This petition proved successful: the College, represented by Jackson Lewis, agreed to negotiate. Though the union’s first contract expired at the end of September, a limited extension is under consideration. While the union waits for Emerson to return to negotiations, union members remain intent on having their demands met. Their negotiating committee has been toiling over the language of three articles with the hope that the union can take concrete steps in their next contract to provide better accommodations for staff with disabilities, and make Emerson a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. The union wants to expand the Sick Bank and make it available to more employees. They are working to establish a regular Teleworking policy that will better address the needs of departments and allow for more flexibility for employees. The union also introduced a new article that will establish a better framework for addressing issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This new article includes new processes to find and address bias in hiring and promotions, recognition and compensation for staff of color who take on the extra burden of DEI-related work, and regular anti-bias training for staff. In the long-term, they hope that these measures will retain staff employees.
While it isn’t clear what the union is planning next, it’s important that we keep our eyes on them for any future support they may need. Follow their twitter for updates.
Binx R Perino is a member of Boston DSA, an MFA candidate at Emerson College, and a housing advocate in the city of Boston’s homelessness services.