Gender discrimination case against Emerson College reflects on discussions with the Union

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Photo: The Berkeley Beacon Archives

Emerson’s downtown Boston campus.

By Shannon Garrido, Multimedia Managing Editor

Longtime Emerson staff member Anna Feder is suing the college after allegedly being denied a promotion due to gender-based discrimination on the part of a senior administrator.

Feder, Head of Film Exhibition and Festival Programs at the college, filed a complaint in Suffolk County Superior Court against the college on Sep. 22 of last year. The gender discrimination and equal pay claims suit also named Assistant Provost for Faculty Affairs Brooke Knight. 

Knight acted as Feder’s supervisor as chair of the VMA department from 2014 until July 2020. Feder accused him of allegedly informing upper administration that she should not be promoted, despite her experience serving on numerous committees at Emerson and her past representation of the college on multiple panels at film industry conferences.

Feder claims her salary is $15,000 less than that of a male coworker with a less demanding role. Her suit seeks an increase in pay as well as monetary damages for her rightful earnings.

Michelle Gaseau, a spokesperson for the college, declined to comment on the state of the lawsuit. 

Feder, unable to disclose more details on the case, worked firsthand with contract negotiations as one of the organizers for the college’s staff union and helped ratify a new contract in 2019, which included higher salary benefits. 

However, according to Feder, there is still much work to be done in regard to staff contracts, particularly in the job review process. Feder described how, in 2012, her job changed entirely from an entry-level position to overseeing a full department. 

“My job became running this film series, which was 44 films a year,” she said. “My job changed entirely, but without recognition in terms of title or in terms of compensation.”

According to court documents, Feder learned how much the salary of a fellow VMA department member Leonard Manzo was, in contrast to her. As a result, she decided to renegotiate her salary with the school.

I tried— unsuccessfully—to navigate the job review process, which was set up in the union contract,” Feder said. “When we had the [first union] contract signed, years after I realized there was a pay discrepancy, [I realized that] the job review process… doesn’t really exist.”

Feder clarified that Emerson is contractually obligated to acknowledge the job review complaint. However, there is no obligation to follow through with the review process, and meetings held on the matter are not required to include the person. 

“​​There’s no obligation for [Emerson] to involve you as the worker at all,” she said. “And they didn’t.”

According to Gaseau, the college’s collective bargaining agreement “contains a clear process for employees to request review of whether jobs are properly classified in particular grades.”

According to staff union member Illona Yukhayev, the union’s efforts to improve the terms of its first contract have been unsuccessful. However, the union continues to demand a change in the job review process, exemplifying cases like Feder’s. 

“There is no documented explanation and that prevents accountability,” Yukhayev said.  “The [administration] can make a form to fill out. The [complainant] writes their stuff and that’s it. From that point on they’re cut off from the conversation.”

“In our [new] proposal, we want them involved in the conversation,” she added.

Yukhayev said that Feder’s lawsuit is a much more personal resolution that does not apply to other staff members in a similar position. 

“We talk about sexism with Anna, but there are all kinds of biases that come into play,” she said. 

However, she also said that such gender-based discrimination is not uncommon at the college.

“Before we negotiated our first contract, I was doing the same job as my coworker with the same job description,” she said. “I was one grade below him, and that was true for the woman that was before me.”

Feder said a more direct form of action comes from unions, which she assumes the college is actively fighting against. 

“There’s all sorts of reasons why employers fight unions,” she said. “While it is illegal for an employer to tell you can’t discuss your pay, [that discussion] isn’t done nearly as much as it should be, which is usually to the detriment of women [and] people of color. It wasn’t until we started union organizing that I found out how much [Manzo] was making.”

Feder said she discovered systemic issues during the lengthy process of negotiating with the administration for equal wages through the union. 

The first staff union contract gave members considerable benefits and increased wages. However, changing their legal representation prompted the college to be less considerate of the organizations.

“Emerson hired the preeminent union-busting law firm in the country, Jackson Lewis,” Feder said. “After we got a pretty decent contract the first time around, that was their response.”

Emerson hired Jackson Lewis for outside counsel in 2018, focusing specifically on labor and employment law. According to The New York Times, Jackson Lewis is known for propelling anti-union campaigns and training institutions to do so; its website includes a section titled ‘Remaining Union Free.’ 

According to Staff Union President Dennis Levine, the union has struggled to extract further concessions from the college due mostly to the pandemic. Jackson Lewis has only shifted the conversation.

This year’s negotiations are different,” Levine says. “Some of the meetings get testy, [which is] to be expected. People sometimes dig their heels in and have very strong opinions about certain things.” 

Feder also associated the college’s change in legal representation with a drastic change in the school’s conversations with unions. 

She said she hopes her personal struggles to negotiate equal pay with administration spark a sense of understanding, compassion, and recognition in faculty. She fears this issue has gone on way too long, but she doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. 

“I love my job, I love my coworkers, both faculty and staff, and the students that come to the film series and take my course,” Feder said. “I’m glad that I’m staying.” 

According to Suffolk County Superior Court, as of March 17, 2022, Feder and the college have reached an agreement but haven’t finalized a settlement. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Feder was the director of programming of the Visual and Media Arts Department, and that Feder learned of the pay gap in her salary as compared to Leonard Manzo’s salary through the staff union. Additionally, Feder was misquoted, stating that Feder believes it is “legal” for an employer to prevent an employee from discussing their pay. The article has been updated with the correct quote stating Feder believes it is “illegal” for an employer to prevent an employee from discussing their pay, and to reflect that Feder is the Head of Film Exhibition and Festival Programs at the college, and that the union did not alert Feder of Manzo’s salary as the union does not disclose confidential information such as members’ salaries to anyone.