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October 2, 2007

Protesters back union stance

[img id="80267" align="alignleft"] A group of around two hundred protesters picketed the University administration building Friday in a show of support for campus clerical workers’ recent demands for higher wages in light of the latest union contract offered to them by the University.

Students, who constituted the majority of the crowd, displayed signs demanding “no more wage cuts” and “four percent” while their chants decried the University for being “no good.”

The protest, assembled by Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL), was a response to last month’s rejection of the University’s contract offer by campus members of Teamsters Local 743. The workers, mostly clerical employees but also members of the warehouse and maintenance departments, argued that the contract fell short of their requests for a minimum of four-percent wage increases each year.

“We thought the turnout was great. It was great to see so many students out in support of campus workers,” said Alex Moore, SOUL chair and a principal organizer of the protest.

Moore said that although his organization sought to voice support for campus employees, “It isn’t really our place to be speaking on behalf of the workers.”

Nonetheless, University maintenance worker Sydney Simmons, who marched with the demonstrators, offered “special thanks” to student protesters for their efforts.

Despite student turnout, the protest did not draw a significant number of University employees.

Caitlin Spies, an administrative assistant in the English department and a union member, attributed the low numbers to the general feeling among employees that attending the protest would be frowned upon by University administrators.

One source under the supervision of Associate Dean of the College Katherine Karvunis said that the fear of potentially losing their jobs had prevented many employees, including the source, from attending the student-organized rally. Some University employees watched the rally from across the street.

Karvunis, who was not in her office Friday, said she did not know the event had been planned. “Anyone who said that [employees would lose their jobs for attending], that information is false. I didn’t know anything about the rally so I can’t comment on it,” she said.

“It’s distressing to know that someone said to a member that someone would lose their job.... That needs to be cleared up,” said Evelyn Steward, associate dean of students in the College and a union steward on campus, who some felt was discouraging participation in the rally. Steward sent e-mails to employees informing them that the SOUL protest had not been sanctioned by Local 743. The e-mails did not discourage employees from attending the rally.

Steward said that the implication that she opposed the rally was “outrageous.” She said that she attended the rally but only watched from afar. “I participated in spirit,” she said.

Steward said she supported the rally because the student protesters “were there for the good of the contract.”

Negotiations between lawyers for the University and the Teamsters union ended late last month after the University presented the union with its final contract offer after months of discussions.

In an unprecedented vote turnout, union members rejected an offer by the University for the first time in the union’s history on campus.

University administrators have maintained that they are committed to offering a contract that will offer employees a decent “living wage,” said Gwynne Dilday, associate vice president for human relations management, during a phone interview last week.

Representatives for both sides plan to return to the negotiating table in an attempt to hammer out an agreement.

Meanwhile, students and active union members continue to be outspoken in their efforts to influence the University to relent. A panel discussion featuring several university employees is scheduled for Tuesday evening.