The Physical Plant workers’ campaign for a revised contract became even more visible on Wednesday, when a large group of Physical Plant workers, secretarial and clerical employees and students marched through Usdan’s Marketplace during the busy lunchtime period, holding signs and chanting “Contract now!”
The protest, the Physical Plant workers’ second in a week, was greeted with enthusiastic cheers from dining workers and a mixture of excitement and bemusement from students grabbing lunch. The demonstration also seemed to interfere with business in the Marketplace.
The march was preceded by a rally in front of North College. At the rally, Physical Plant employees denounced the contract that had emerged from nine months of negotiations between the administration and the union’s business agents.
John Hahn, a business agent for the union, stood behind a banner that read “Wesleyan University: What happened to partnership?”
The union’s business agents and the University had reached a tentative agreement more than a week ago, but when union negotiators recommended that agreement to union members, it was overwhelmingly rejected by a vote of union members as unsatisfactory.
President Michael Roth posted an entry on his blog Monday commenting on the “frustratingly slow” contract negotiation process. “To our great surprise, after we reached this tentative agreement on the proposal, the members of the union rejected the proposal their own representatives had made!” Roth wrote.
At the rally, Hahn apologized for agreeing to and recommending a tentative contract that was ultimately deemed unacceptable by the union’s local members.
Paul Martin, a union steward, explained the workers’ rejection of the proposed contract.
“There has been a four percent rise in the cost of living, which makes this contract not just unacceptable, but unlivable,” Martin said.
The recently proposed contract offers workers a 2.5 percent raise each year for three years along with signing bonuses and doubled insurance costs for the workers. Additionally, some retired Physical Plant workers report that their insurance costs will rise, but their fixed income will remain the same.
Martin also condemned the University’s employment of subcontractors for jobs that had once been done by Physical Plant workers.
“Outside contracting comes at great cost to the University, but even greater cost to the University’s employees,” he said.
According to David Pesci, director of media relations, the University will keep the proposed agreement on the table until the end of the month.
Pete McGurgan, a member of Local 153, views the administration’s deadline as a threat intended to frighten the union into accepting the deal.
“They want us to twist arms and shove it down peoples’ throats,” he said.
There was a large contingent of secretarial and clerical employees at Wednesday’s rally. The secretaries are members of the same union as the Physical Plant workers: Local 153 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). Many believe that the outcome of the negotiations with Physical Plant will affect the contract that the secretarial staff will be offered later this year.
“They’ll do the same to us in June,” said Rosalind Eastaway, “but no one will be here [in the summer].”
Roth held that the University always tries to offer the fairest possible contract to its employees.
“We look at data,” he said. “We see, are the people who work here paid more than the average worker in Connecticut at the same job? And we want them to be. They have to be paid more than the average.”
On his blog, “Roth on Wesleyan,” Roth advised students to reconsider getting involved in labor disputes.
“It is disturbing to see students enlisted in a protest (“No contract, no peace!”) that seems aimed to make up for the failure of the Physical Plant employees to agree with their own representatives,” he wrote.
In a comment on the blog, Hahn challenged Roth’s intentions.
“I don’t blame the President for being surprised,” he wrote. “I am just as surprised. I am surprised at the mocking of the Union, its representatives, membership and even the student body for supporting us.”
Roth denied that his comments were intended to mock.