Over 30 demonstrators gathered at the University of Massachusetts at Boston campus yesterday to protest the school’s two-day shutdown during the first presidential debate on Oct. 3.
The demonstrators, organized by the UMass Radical Student Alliance, also took aim at what they see as the University’s unfair labor practices. Management of UMass’ bookstore and dining facilities is contracted to the Sedexo-Mariott corporation, and the company’s non-union workers are hired as sub-contractors, thereby receiving few of the same benefits as University employees.
According to faculty member and union organizer Gary Zabel, the closing of the University during the presidential debate harmed both students and these sub-contractors. The students, Zabel said, lost two days of school they had already paid for and the workers lost two days’ pay when they were forced to take unpaid sick leave or vacation time. Those workers who did not take time off were docked pay for those two days.
“[The workers] paid for an event at which the rich and wealthy got to display themselves publicly. … People who sat at that debate do not work in the kitchen here,” Zabel said. “These are not people who make a great deal of money. You’re talking about the working poor.”
“They are struggling to pay the same amount of expenses as last month, only with less money,” said Dianne Dujon, a protester and UMass staff member.
Zabel called the University’s outsourcing of labor a “classic ploy” to avoid providing benefits for its workers.
He also rejected the University’s claim that the shutdown was necessary for security, pointing out that when President Bill Clinton visited UMass two years before, the school remained open.
Few of the protesters who marched in the freezing cold at the Quinn Administration Building were employees of Sedexo-Mariott; Zabel said the workers were “keeping undercover” to avoid retribution by their employers.
“It’s a sad truth that American workers are often fired for organizing,” Zabel said.
After picketing for a half hour, the protesters moved into the administration building to present Vice Chancellor David McKenzie with a 1,200-signature petition. In addition to back wages for University workers and a charter of University worker’s rights, the petition demanded the University make reparations for shutting down classes already paid for by donating “several hundred thousand dollars” to fund onsite child care.
The protesters had selected a group of four people to negotiate with the administration. However, when McKenzie walked into the room, he met 30 students, faculty members and labor organizers.
The situation quickly became a tense verbal free-for-all when McKenzie said the debate had helped create jobs at the University during the two days it was closed.
“There was plenty of work for them,” McKenzie said, adding that, “everybody who should be paid was paid.”
The protesters argued that although there was work available at the debates, none of it went to the cafeteria workers because the cafeteria was closed.
When McKenzie protested that the University couldn’t meet the protesters’ demands due to financial hardship caused by the debates and the passage of ballot Question 4, one of the student protesters suggested the vice chancellor take a pay cut. Others pointed out that the vice chancellor was a member of a union, while the cafeteria workers were not.
“I hope you get a cut in salary. I want to see you suffer like these workers suffered,” said Dermot Doyne, a UMass student and union organizer.
McKenzie pointed out that the cafeteria and bookstore workers are not employees of the University. McKenzie added that these employees all make the prevailing wage. The protesters responded that the prevailing wage is under $10 an hour.
“You’re saying the prevailing wage isn’t a living wage?” McKenzie asked.
After a half hour of argument, McKenzie agreed to meet with representatives of the student protesters at an unspecified future date and left.
Asked if he was satisfied with the result, Ben Day, one of the representatives of the protesters said, “I was horrified.”
After the meeting, Zabel summed up his view of the administration.
“Every boss — when they negotiate — the first thing they say is ‘We can’t afford it,’” he said.