Emerson Staff Union rallies outside Board of Trustees meeting

By Chloe Els, Staff Writer

Around 30 members of the Emerson College Staff Union assembled in front of the Cutler Majestic Theatre with handwritten signs to ask the Board of Trustees for a cost-of-living adjustment on Tuesday afternoon.

A COLA increases Social Security and Supplemental Security Income based on the inflation rate to help people keep up with rising prices. The 2023 COLA is an 8.7 percent increase—its highest since 1981.

According to Richelle Devereaux Murray, a costume shop supervisor at Emerson who helped organize the rally, the staff union has been negotiating for COLA contracts for the past 14 months. In past negotiations, she said, the union and administration have not been able to come to an agreement on COLA increases and whether staff will receive raises to compensate. 

“Non-union members got raises,” Murray said. “We didn’t.”

The Staff Union’s last contract was effective from January to September 2021 and covered issues such as salary increases and union rights. However, in its next contract, the Staff Union wants salary adjustments to be more proportional to current inflation rates which have stretched current salaries thin.

The rally occurred during the Board of Trustees’ fall meeting inside the Cutler Majestic Theater. After standing in front of the theatre for nearly an hour, staff union members silently walked inside the theatre and displayed their signs for the board to see before dispersing.

The signs read, “I need a COLA because without one I can’t save for my future,” “COLA should be the minimum,” and “This year invest in people.”

Heather May, a union member and senior lecturer for communication studies, stood outside the theatre, her face set.

“Refusing to give staff COLA is unacceptable,” she said. “It does not reflect the values of Emerson College.”

In response to ongoing negotiations with the staff union, the Emerson administration hired the Jackson Lewis law firm, which specializes in labor and employment law.

Union President of the Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College Barry Marshall referred to Jackson Lewis as a “union-busting law firm.” While the law firm has not tried to break the union at Emerson yet, it still speaks to the college’s priorities, he said.

“It’s not a good look for the Emerson College Board of Trustees to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars on a law firm, [and not budget] 10 minutes talking to the union,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t speak well for Emerson.”

As a visual and media arts professor at Emerson, Marshall says he and other faculty and staff members are dedicated to serving students. 

“They’re squeezing student services,” he said in regards to the college’s money being spent on hiring a law firm, “They shouldn’t be wasting the money.”

Multiple staff union members discussed the importance of COLA and how beneficial a raise would be. Currently, a number of union members cannot afford to live in Boston and work several jobs to cope with inflation.

John-Albert Moseley, vice chair of the staff union chapter, said he moved to Providence in 2015 in search of a more manageable cost of living. He now spends over an hour on the commuter rail every day just to reach campus and struggles with living outside the community where he works.

Isobel Rounovski, the chief steward of the staff union and an instructional technologist at Emerson, was also driven out of Boston due to rising prices and now resides in Brighton. Rounovski also took a second job at the Harvard Extension School.

Theo Wolf graduated from Emerson in January with a degree in creative writing and now works as a reserves coordinator in the Iwasaki library. They live in Somerville with three roommates, as they cannot afford the Boston housing prices, and spend around two hours a day commuting to and from Emerson on the MBTA’s Red Line. 

In addition to being Emerson staff, they work a second job as a freelance writer to make ends meet. Wolf attended Tuesday’s rally to show their support.

“I have no work-life balance,” Wolf said. “I have no time to be creative. My projects are languishing. It’s very disheartening.”

Both Rounovski and Wolf remain committed to Emerson as an institution despite their financial struggles.

“The community keeps me here,” Rounovski said. “Everyone is so kind.”

Illona Yosefov, a member of the staff union, echoed this sentiment. “I love this institution,” she said. “I hope the administration sees that.”

Yosefov believes the administration may not understand the true commitment the staff union feels for Emerson. 

“I think the administration sees us as antagonists or adversaries,” she said, “But we’re not. If we didn’t care, we would have left.”