Emerson Staff Union demonstration demands cost-of-living adjustment, equitable conditions

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Photo: Adri Pray

The Emerson Staff Union demonstrates outside of Piano Row following the Faculty Institute.

By Adri Pray and Hannah Nguyen

Conversation about the staff union buzzed Thursday morning as faculty members entered the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym for the 2022 Faculty Institute. Many people donned “I support the Emerson staff union” stickers on their shirts or read fliers outlining where the staff union is stuck in its negotiations.

The Faculty Institute is an annual tradition at Emerson at which the president, provost, and assembly and union faculty heads welcome new and returning faculty at the beginning of the academic year. The Institute serves as an opportunity to understand the college’s goals for the upcoming year, meet colleagues, celebrate faculty achievements, and discuss college-wide academic topics, according to the college’s website.

Beginning at 9 a.m., Interim Provost Jan Roberts-Breslin’s introduction kicked off the event followed by a welcome speech from Interim President William Gilligan. Roberts-Breslin and Gilligan introduced new faculty from each school, and thanked faculty and administrative leaders who took on interim roles. They both announced upcoming campus events and updated faculty on policies from academic affairs.

While discussing faculty achievements, the class of 2026, and Emerson’s goals for the upcoming academic year, Gilligan also addressed the ongoing contract negotiations with the staff union in his speech.

“As the third generation of a union family myself, a member of two unions myself, including having been a union officer, I want you to know from my personal perspective, the college continues to bargain with the SEIU in good faith,” Gilligan said. “I have great hope that we will come to an amicable conclusion.”

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AFEC-AAUP President Barry Marshall then reflected on how far the faculty union has come since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the AFEC-AAUP and the ECCAAUP worked hard with the previous administration to advance and redefine the idea of shared governance, he said.

“It was an important step, in terms of going forward…This year we are hiring a mental health person for faculty,” Marshall said.

Before relinquishing the podium, Marshall reaffirmed his position with the staff union. 

“We stand with the Emerson staff union, yes we do,” he said, waving the leaflet. “Unions are on the march and they’re not going to back down.”

The faculty union will vote for a new AFEC-AAUP president and vice president later this month.

As the Institute adjourned, Emerson staff union members congregated outside of Piano Row with posters and flyers, calling for equitable working conditions, fair and competitive wages, and the ratification of the union’s second contract. Various Emerson community members joined in their demonstration in solidarity, some chanting “union busting is disgusting,” and “Boston is a union town,” while others wrote messages on the sidewalk with chalk demanding action.

The union ratified its first four-year contract in 2018, which was extended after its expiration earlier this year. It began negotiating its second contract Sept. 1, 2021, demanding a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), equitable working conditions, and diversity, equity, and inclusion benefits.

Staff members agreed to postpone raises and allowed the college to pause contributing to their retirement funds in 2020 due to unprecedented pandemic-related costs with the promise to resume both as the pandemic continued. In 2021, raises were postponed until January, then pushed to October, then withheld indefinitely because the union is in negotiations, according to Instructional Technologist Illona Yukhayev.

“[The college] did a market study and determined 78% of our staff members are below what’s considered competitive in our peer institutions,” Yukhayev said. “They know they’re underpaying us, and they want to move us to what’s considered competitive over four years. [In] four years, those numbers are going to be outdated anyway.”

Thursday marked one year since the negotiations started, but Yukhayev, like the majority of staff union members, believes the contract is six months overdue. To make matters more frustrating, the retroactive wage hasn’t been agreed upon for the staff union’s contract, potentially allowing new hires to make more money than more experienced employees.

“My department is hiring for another person in my exact role; that person is going to make a higher salary,” Instructional Technologist Isobel Rounovski said. “If they’re hired before our contract is ratified, that person is going to make more money than me, which is not fair. I’ve been here for almost three years.”

Throughout the demonstration, many staff union members raised concerns about how the college prioritized buildings rather than the needs of their staff members.

“Emerson needs to prioritize people over the other agendas that they have to make sure that people who are working at Emerson don’t have to get a second job to pay their rent, they’re not on food stamps, they’re not living in conditions that are too poor to live in the city that the college is in,” Interim Director of Production and Safety Homa Sarabi-Daunais said.

Unlike the staff union contract, the AFEC-AAUP faculty union contract addresses COLA in relation to Boston’s consumer price index. Each September, the faculty union’s salaries increase by either 2% or the percentage change in Boston’s CPI-U up to 4%.

“We want to show the leadership and scholars that faculty support us; they want to see us get positive increases and the faculty do have it in their contract,” Yukhayev said. “They have won it in their fights. We’re trying to get it in ours.”