WesFestivities were briefly interrupted on Saturday by a demonstration of Physical Plant workers for a new contract. Members of Physical Plant’s union, the Office and Professional Employees’ International Union (OPEIU), were joined by members of the dining workers’ union, the secretarial and clerical union, students and even a handful of prefrosh. The group gathered in front of North College, where Physical Plant workers aired their grievances with the new contract that the University has offered them.
“We will be losing money every year under this contract,” said Dean Canalia, a member of the union’s Bargaining Committee and one of the demonstration’s organizers.
About 60 demonstrators walked from North College to the Physical Plant offices near Long Lane, chanting: “No contract, no work, no peace,” and: “What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!” The group was also conscious of its image to students, chanting “Go Wes!” when passing the lacrosse, baseball and softball games that were underway.
For maximum visibility, the group passed by the Office of Admission and crossed Foss Hill. A few students broke from the group to chalk the union’s demands on walls and sidewalks. The entrance to the Physical Plant offices was covered in expressions of solidarity from students and the slogan “No Wesploitation.”
“Ten months of negotiations have passed with limited compromises from the administration,” said Alexis Horan ’10, a member of United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) and another of the demonstration’s organizers. “That’s been possible because it’s been invisible. We are going to let Wesleyan know that students care about workers.”
According to Canalia, the contract would give Physical Plant workers a 2.5 percent annual raise for three years as well as a lump sum bonus of about $2500, while doubling the share of insurance costs that workers are required to pay, raising them from 15 percent to 33 percent.
After nine months of negotiations, business representatives of the union tentatively agreed to the contract in late March, but it was rejected almost unanimously by the rank and file members. Canalia said that the increased insurance premiums would mean that almost all Physical Plant workers would begin losing money in three years.
He warned that secretarial and clerical workers would face a similar offer if Physical Plant workers do not hold their ground in the current negotiations.
The latest negotiations between Physical Plant workers and union members took place on Friday. According to Canalia and Peter McGurgan, another member of the Union’s Bargaining Committee, the administration threatened to begin cutting benefits out of the contract if the Union does not accept it by April 30.
“They want us to twist arms and ram [the new contract] down people’s throats, which we can’t do,” McGurgan said.
“It’s like we’re ten years old and they’re threatening to take away our Nintendo,” Canalia added.
Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe said that she was unable to comment on the issue.
Canalia complained that the administration is ignoring the Union’s proposals, forcing workers to choose between accepting the administration’s contract and going without any contract. Pamphlets distributed at Saturday’s rally contained an alternative proposal for a new contract. The Union proposes that workers pay 26 percent of health insurance premiums, halfway between what they currently pay and what they would pay under the administration’s proposed contract. This proposal would also eliminate the lump-sum bonuses and replace them with pay raises of five percent rather than two-and-a-half percent.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone understood the new [University-proposed] contract,” said Director of Media Relations David Pesci regarding the negotiations. “We hope to move forward with negotiations to find an agreement everyone can be comfortable with.”
Pesci said that he could not comment any further, as the negotiations were still ongoing.
According to Canalia and McGurgan, Physical Plant workers could never afford to accept the current offer. They argued that Physical Plant has been weakened by a shrinking budget and workforce, as the University has relied more and more on subcontractors. The workers are convinced that they need to hold firm on this issue or they will be marginalized.
“Physical Plant wouldn’t exist anymore,” Canalia said. “We wouldn’t be able to take care of ourselves.”
“Especially at the lower end of the pay scale, they’ll be taking a dive,” McGurgan noted. “I don’t know how they’ll keep their houses.”
The Union plans to continue to pressure the administration for a new contract. The march on Saturday was the first time in the current round of negotiations that the Physical Plant union cooperated publicly with students. However, it appears that it will not be the last, as another demonstration is being held in front of North College at noon on Thursday.