The Music, the Mayor…and the Urban Mission: Reflecting on UMB Convocation 2019

By Joseph G. Ramsey, English and American Studies

convocation walsh

In preparation for this year’s Convocation guest speaker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, UMass Boston music professor and chamber singers conductor, David Giessow, prepared a special program of music and an accompanying slideshow. Framed by harmonized Irish blessings–in recognition of the Mayor’s Irish immigrant heritage–the heart of the presentation was a moving rendition of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus,” set to music arranged by Irving Berlin.

While the chorus sang, their words appeared on the projection screen above: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” As the undergraduate soloist’s melody cascaded into blended waves of choral harmonies, the slideshow above moved to powerful images accenting the song’s theme.

convocation chorus

First: black and white photos of Irish and other European immigrants coming ship-bound to American shores at the turn of the 20th century. Then second: color images of contemporary refugees, mainly from Latin America, seeking asylum in the USA, some locked behind cages of wire. And then after that came quotes from the Boston Globe, and then from Mayor Walsh himself, about the importance of making Boston a “sanctuary city,” a place that is welcome to people from all across the world–in stark contrast to the nasty xenophobic border fascism being pushed by the current US Executive-in-Chief.

convocation slideshow

It was an incredibly moving way to start 2019’s Convocation ceremonies here at UMass Boston, where our student body hails from 140 different countries, and where we try to take ideas like inclusion, diversity, equity, and social justice seriously. What a terrific blend of musical performance, history, education, and ethical principles. What a powerful reminder of what UMass Boston is supposed to be about–and why folks like Marty Walsh should be doing all they can to support us, being himself a child of working-class immigrants, and a first generation college student.

convocation chorus giessow
But then, after presenting this humanistic, moving musical/visual/historical montage, Professor David Giessow did something else. He spoke, briefly, about how this very chamber singers’ course that had just done UMB proud and moved us to tears, how this very class–as of a few months prior–was on the verge of potentially being cancelled for “low enrollment.” Earlier in August, when he was first asked to have his chamber singers present at Convocation, there were only 8 students enrolled, a fact that–in these days of bean counting and budget cuts–too often puts liberal arts classes at UMass Boston, our state underfunded, debt-burdened public university–on the chopping block. Luckily, for us all, the chamber singers were not cut–at least not this time around—and, even luckier, Giessow was able to recruit another dozen diversely talented singers to his course. And we all benefited today, from the Mayor on down.

But what about next time? What about the coming round of “belt-tightening” that we have been promised?

With this mix of music, images and timely comments, Prof. Giessow offered us a powerful testament to what is so precious about the mission of UMass Boston–a mission that goes well beyond the current dogma about “workforce development.”  And he also reminded us of something else: how the very music that moves us is being put at risk by the climate of austerity and cutbacks that continues to reign on our campus.

enough is enough

 

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What is open bargaining and why should the FSU embrace it?

Every three years, our union bargains with the administration to come up with a new contract. This process, which drags on for months and even years, takes commitment and perseverance from the FSU  bargaining team as they face UMB administrators and their lawyers. At the end, members receive a tentative agreement and vote to ratify it.

Although negotiating behind closed doors is rarely questioned, the process has many drawbacks . Rank and file faculty and librarians are minimally aware of what is at stake at the bargaining table. The bargaining team is small, meaning that there are gaps in expertise.  The team is also stretched thin, unable to pursue all avenues for fact-finding and outreach. And the administration does not have to confront the real power behind the union: a large, diverse, and formidable membership.

Fortunately, there is successful precedent for an alternative model of bargaining.  Across the state and country, unions like ours have adopted open bargaining to combat these problems.  Rank and file union members and even non-union community members are invited into the negotiating sessions to observe and testify. Members are involved in every step of the process. Open bargaining lends the union legitimacy and real power – power that we give up by continuing to bargain behind closed doors.

At Rutgers, the faculty union utilized open bargaining in their recent victory.  The transition to open bargaining started after a tentative agreement got a lot of NO votes (much as happened with our parking contract in the Fall). That was a wake-up call to make bargaining more transparent and accountable and to mobilize members throughout the process. Even before bargaining began, members held workshops and wrote white papers with others in the university community, including students. During bargaining, members did not just sit silently in the back row. Some made compelling presentations about particular issues, giving more people a direct stake in the process.

Did management like this? Absolutely not. No longer free to make outrageous demands behind closed doors, at Rutgers management even walked out of a few bargaining sessions. Faculty unions that adopt open bargaining have to be ready for that. Bottom line is that through open bargaining the union shows its collective strength in the face of an administration that wishes to divide us.

In addition to Rutgers, many other faculty unions engage in open bargaining, including faculty at Temple University and adjunct and part-time faculty unions organized by the Service Employees International Union. The Massachusetts State College Association, which represents state universities like Worcester State, Framingham State and Salem State, has just voted to adapt open bargaining. In addition, many of the K-12 unions in Massachusetts use open bargaining and the Massachusetts Teachers Association endorses it.  As educators are discovering the power of collective action, now is the time for the FSU to adopt open bargaining!

 

Statement of Solidarity with GEO at UIC

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The Caucus for a Democratic Union at the University of Massachusetts Boston expresses its solidarity with and support for the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) currently on strike. Over 1500 Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants at UIC have been working without a contract for over 5 months, and GEO has been in negotiations with the university administration for over one year. Graduate workers at UIC live in a state of constant financial anxiety, often not knowing whether they will continue to have a job appointment each semester, and making as little as $18,000 while simultaneously having to pay $2,000 in university fees, even when serving as the lead instructor for classes of up to 60 undergraduate students.

On March 19, the GEO began an indefinite strike to win a fair contract! The CDU supports the GEO and urges UIC university administration to pay its workers a living wage!

You can find more information about the strike here. 

The GEO is also asking for donations to its strike fund to ensure they can hold out against the university administration for however long it takes to win living wages, fee waivers, and transparent appointment policies. Please consider making a contribution by visiting their strike fund website.

Teach-in sessions organized by CDU take up racial and gender equity, solidarity across ranks

By Sofya Aptekar, Sociology

For the third year, UMass Boston hosted the Resisting Systemic Oppression Teach-in, organized by a grassroots group of faculty. This year’s theme was Solidarity in Action. CDU members organized two teach-in sessions: (1) Racial and Gender Equity in Unions: My Union Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit and (2) Solidarity Across Ranks.

The session on racial and gender equity featured a panel of UMB faculty and CDU members, a UMB grad student organizer, and two faculty members and union organizers from Worcester State University. We organized this session because of shared frustrations with our own unions. For example, we talked about being in white-male-dominated unions representing women-dominated faculty, and how privilege gets used to reinforce itself. In all of our unions, procedures get weaponized to replicate systems of oppression. In this way, criticisms of the union’s lack of engagement with racial inequities can get buried under the suddenly-relevant minutiae of Robert’s Rules of Order. Marginalized faculty are told to form a committee, the work of the committee is ignored, the existence of the committee gets pointed to as evidence that the union did something. Rinse and repeat.

Racial and gender equity in unions panel

Another issue is the default image of the worker. Who is the worker imagined by union leadership? Which identities are institutionalized? All too often, workplace issues central to the experiences of people of color and white women are bracketed out of the union’s purview. Yet, these are the most precarious academic workers. Linda Liu, one of the CDU panelists, pointed out how activist faculty who are women and people of color are likened to naïve children by union leadership. The focus of business unionism is so narrowly defined that it makes sense for people not to get involved.     

At a time of a resurgence of the labor movement, we risk replicating structures of oppression. Without a focus on intersectionality, people of color and white women are sacrificed in the name of unity. How do we make sure not to repeat these mistakes in our progressive union caucuses?

The section on Solidarity Across Ranks came together as an effort to create room for an open conversation between graduate student workers and faculty of different ranks. When the administration’s strategy is to divide and conquer, pitting grad students against faculty and NTT faculty against TT faculty, we wanted to explore our common ground as workers in the same struggle. Each constituent described some of their most pressing workplace issues, followed by a dialogue.

Solidarity across ranks panelGraduate student employees do an increasing amount of teaching on our campus, as well as nationwide. At UMass Boston, the teaching positions are budgeted in different ways and there are no set rules about how to get a job on campus. This contributes to conflicts around the availability of teaching positions, needed by many of our graduate students to survive financially. There is a felt tension between graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty, particularly the most vulnerable associate lecturers, who can lose their livelihoods on short notice. As elsewhere, the administration and even many faculty frame graduate student teaching as an apprenticeship. GEO members point out that that this concept is used to silence student worker organizing and is particularly vacuous because most of our grad students do not plan to go into academia. Graduate students are stuck in the conflicting roles of employees, customers, and products of the neoliberal university.

All faculty were previously graduate students and most were also graduate student workers. Two CDU members spoke about the working conditions of NTT and pre-tenure tenure-track faculty. Non-tenure-track faculty, who are really the tenure-excluded faculty, were rarely socialized to expect a non-tenure track position upon earning their graduate degrees. And yet, given the dramatic growth of the academic proletariat, that is what most face, along with catastrophic loan debt. The issues of NTT workers include unfair compensation but also lack of recognition and respect. At UMB, NTT faculty are the majority of faculty. They have heavier teaching loads, get paid less, and live with job insecurity (especially the growing share of associate lecturers). They are excluded from faculty governance and underrepresented in the union leadership.

Pre-tenure faculty have a precarious hold on the tenure track. At UMB, they are often buried in service work, as staff is continually downsized and faculty takes on the additional tasks of running programs. At the same time, they are expected to produce original research, publishing articles and books, all while teaching, advising, and supervising student workers. Tenure-track faculty are paid to perform teaching, research, and service, so while it might seem that they do half the teaching of NTT faculty, teaching is only a portion of their contracted work. If they get tenure – which most do at UMB – the service load becomes truly overwhelming, particularly for women faculty. Of course, NTT faculty also do service and research, but that work is unpaid and unrecognized in our workplace.  

This teach-in session created an all-too-rare space for us to have these conversations. One takeaway is to be aware of the power structure in which we are embedded as we strive to work together. For instance, when graduate student workers speak up, they face not only the administration but their faculty supervisors. Another is our common mission to provide the best and most affordable education. Unfortunately, we neglected to invite anyone to represent our staff members – an oversight we will correct in the future.

 

Open Letter to UMass Boston Interim Chancellor Newman

February 20, 2019

Dear Chancellor Newman,

Since you were unavailable to meet with the union and student delegation that visited your office on February 6, and since you have not accepted the CSU and PSU request for a meeting, we are sending you this open letter.

As we see it, your administration is at a crossroads: it can reach an agreement with the union coalition that would maintain more affordable parking for students and lower wage employees while bringing in sufficient revenues to cover all operating costs and assist in paying down the garage debt, or it can implement your administration’s proposal which would add to student debt, deepen the economic inequities on our campus, and financially punish part-time parkers.

We hope you will take the time to read this letter and not dismiss it as ‘inappropriately’ raising bargaining issues. There is nothing inappropriate about raising these concerns with you, the Chancellor of our institution, the person ultimately responsible for the impacts of campus policies on every member of our community.

The question we had hoped to discuss with you is this: why won’t your administration accept the union coalition’s proposal?

The union coalition’s proposal is better for the entire campus community in the following ways:

1. It establishes more equitable parking costs for students and lower-wage employees.
Many of our students and employees were already struggling to buy monthly passes for $96. Our proposal would reduce the monthly pass costs to $80 for students who choose to park at Bayside only. This reduction would also be available to employees earning less than $40,000 annually, with parking costs increasing gradually up to $128/month, depending on employee salary. Parking rates at all other lots would range from $112/month (for students and employees earning up to $40,000 annually) to a maximum of $192/month (for the highest paid employees).

By contrast, in your administration’s plan, Bayside monthly rates range from $126 to $160. On-campus rates under your plan are even more punishing for your staff: while students and faculty would be charged $122.22/month, charges for staff would start at $180/month for those earning less than $40,000 per year, and would climb to $240 for those earning above $100,000 annually. (See the chart at the end of the letter.)

The administration’s plan is inequitable. You have publicly committed that students and those earning the least should pay the least, but under your administration’s plan, every employee and every student would pay more than tenured faculty. Does that seem equitable to you?

2. It provides equitable discounts for part-time parkers, ensuring that they do not have to pay the daily “cash” rates simply because they drive to campus less frequently.
More than half of our students take classes only two or three days a week. Your administration’s pricing structure makes it more costly for them to buy a semester pass than to pay the new $9 or $15 daily rates. Similarly, many full-time employees only park on campus a few days a week; on the other days they telecommute, take public transportation, or commute to other locations as required by their jobs. They too will be forced to pay the high daily rates.

At the last Town Hall meeting you assured a concerned student that nobody would have to pay $9 or $15 a day, yet your administration’s proposal forces a significant portion of students and employees to do just that. Accepting the unions’ proposal to continue an equitably priced multi-use pass would address this flaw in the administration’s proposal and drastically reduce the number of students and employees who would have to pay the full daily rates.

3. It ensures that lower cost parking will remain available to our community regardless of how Bayside is developed.
With the UMass Board of Trustees’ decision of February 14, 2019, this is no longer a question of ‘if’; we now know Bayside will be developed in the next few years. We have heard words of assurance that your administration “doesn’t want to sell us a pig in a poke,” so why won’t you agree to maintain at least the current ratio of parking available at lower rates?

4. It raises sufficient revenue to cover operating expenses and pay down the debt.
The University’s consultants put the annual cost of staffing, operating and maintaining all parking areas, purchasing new equipment, and contributing to a “sinking fund” at a yearly total of $2.7 million. The same consultants predict that the unions’ plan would bring in $5.3 million annually. So the revenues from our proposal would cover all operating expenses and make a significant dent in the debt payments for the West Garage, while at the same time reducing costs for students and lower wage staff, and providing discounted parking for those who park less than four days a week.

5. It ensures that parking rates will be renegotiated if the campus is relieved of debt.
You have said publicly that it would be “a tragedy” to use proceeds from the lease or sale of Bayside to pay the debt for the new garage, and that you do not want to take the MA legislature off the hook for paying for our crumbling substructure. We have been working for the past two years to hold the Legislature accountable for our campus’s legacy debt, and we would welcome working with you to make that a reality.

Yet, in the meantime, it seems that you are willing to leave students and employees on the hook for the West Garage debt. Are you? Do you recognize the tragic consequences of making students and employees bear that burden? Your administration’s refusal to agree to simply reopen negotiations over parking fees should the Legislature or Board of Trustees act to provide the campus with debt relief certainly implies that you are comfortable with us being left on that hook, and that you are comfortable with the consequences of higher fees on working class students and low-wage employees.

Your administration’s insistence on its plan of high rates, no multi-use passes, and no commitments regarding future changes in parking availability or campus finances, appears to be a bald attempt to take as much money as possible from students and employees, apparently without concern for the impacts on those at highest financial risk. It is shortsighted, greedy and cruel, and all the more so for being unnecessary, since there is a viable alternative awaiting your approval.

We hope you will take the time as UMass Boston’s Chancellor to delve into the details of this situation with as much rigor as you apply to your own research into inequality in the larger society. Inequality is no stranger to our campus. The campus parking policy offers you an opportunity to address it. Please don’t ignore that opportunity.

Sincerely,

Anneta Argyres, Professional Staff Union
Janelle Quarles, Classified Staff Union
Juan Blanco, Graduate Employees Organization

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The Invisible Faculty

By Joe Ramsey, English and American Studies

(Originally published at The Chronicle Review. Art by James Yang.)

Walking to my bike recently after four hours of teaching, I had to pass through one of those fancy catered events in our new, spangled Integrated Sciences Complex. It was an administration event held to celebrate newly tenured faculty — I could see the PowerPoint slides with all the names up on the giant projector screen, complete with what looked to be an open bar, and trays of hot appetizers circulated on the shoulders of workers in black tie. A dark curtain I’d never noticed before was pulled across the cafe, dividing the food-preparation area from the party. Workers in the back scrambled, as folks in front lifted glasses of well-earned wine, toasting the proud Professors of UMass-Boston.

Here was a room full of my colleagues, an event celebrating academic achievement: teaching and research and service — all things that I hold in high esteem. No doubt I would be among the first to celebrate the work these folks had done. And yet, my gut was seized with ambivalence. Despite my six years of full-time service to UMB, I felt radically excluded. Like I was walking through a country club of which I was not a member.

A memory flashed up from UMB’s convocation in September, where our Save UMB Coalition interrupted the proceedings in protest of plans to jack up parking fees so high that working-class commuter students might be pushed out. At UMB, we take community inclusion seriously.

But I was remembering a less remarkable moment from convocation, during the opening speech by our interim chancellor, Katherine Newman, her first formal address to our entire university community. It was a good speech, in many ways, full of statements about the progressive public mission of UMB, and sincere remarks about our sacred commitment to serving our diverse first-generation, low-income, predominantly working-class student body. Even as I was preparing to stand and protest the parking-fee hike, I couldn’t help but be moved by Newman’s words: so many shared values, articulated so well.

But then Newman took time to introduce all the “faculty” that were joining us at UMB that year. Each new faculty member from each college got a personalized and detailed introduction from their respective dean at the podium. They stood and we clapped and they were acknowledged, and then they sat, and the next one rose, and so on. Each new faculty member receiving their due.

And here’s the thing: There was not one mention of us nontenure-track faculty the entire time. Not one acknowledgment of the people — newbies or veterans — who compose more than half of the UMB faculty, we who do the majority of the actual teaching of students at our institution. (Here at UMB, a typical full-time nontenure-track person teaches four courses per semester to the tenure-track person’s two, and we don’t get sabbaticals. Contrary to the misnomer, most of us are not “part-time;” more often we are “double-time.”)

Over and over the term “faculty” came off Newman’s lips, and each time it meant not me, not us. It meant only the tenure-stream faculty. Hundreds of hard-working, devoted, degree-holding, self-sacrificing, decades-committed but, alas, tenure-barred faculty were rendered invisible in the very moment when ostensibly our new chancellor was paying homage to the sacred teaching and research mission of our public urban university.

Remembering this, I thought about an article I had just completed for Labor Notes on the struggle of 1,500 local gas workers who are standing up to the utility giant National Grid, specifically by refusing to allow their employer to deny future workers the benefits that they themselves enjoy. Before they were locked out, these United Steelworkers expressed a willingness to strike rather than give in to the company’s demands that new hires won’t get the same health benefits and pension package that current workers get. The gas workers did so not only because it was the right thing to do, but because they saw clearly that allowing the company to degrade the conditions of future employees would ultimately undermine their own power as well, and their profession as a whole.

Imagine if the tenured faculty of our profession followed their example and refused to accept the management plan for reproducing and expanding a two-tier academic labor system.

Imagine if tenured folks a generation ago, or those protected by tenure today, recognized that by allowing university administrations to create more and more teaching positions without benefits, livable salaries, job security, or support for research, they were ultimately undermining their own power on campus, as well as the future of their profession.

Imagine if these protected and relatively privileged academic workers had the foresight, the solidarity, and the courage to stand and refuse to disown their present and future colleagues — not to mention their students — coming up behind.

Wouldn’t we be in a radically different place today?

Having failed to fight together for the next generation (with too few exceptions), tenured professors now find their numbers, and thus their power, dwindling, and their service loads rising, in the face of aggressive administrations bent on running colleges like corporations. Assistant professors, and those seeking that special status, hustle full-time, desperate not to fall back into the invisible ranks of the adjunct. Meanwhile, most of the actually existing full-time faculty in the United States scramble to make ends meet, working at two or even three institutions at a time, often not knowing where we will be teaching a year from now. Why is it that so many our most esteemed professors can’t see what the unionized steelworkers see so clearly: that an attack on the future generation is an attack on the profession as a whole — and on the public we serve?

I am thankful to be at a university where we have a union, one that tries to represent all faculty on campus. I am thankful also to be in a department where I am treated with respect, like an actual colleague — even if my teaching schedule often makes it impossible to attend department meetings. But even here, at UMB, nontenure track faculty still have no representation on our Faculty Council, are not eligible for various pockets of travel money (regardless of the research we are doing), and are often denied equal pay for equal work. We have a long ways to go.

Where to begin? How about here: Too many of us, even those I see as model comrades and allies on other fronts, tacitly accept the idea that the two-tier system dividing higher-ed faculty is something natural, to be accepted and adapted to — at best something to be ameliorated — rather than something to be abolished.

I look forward to the day when I can raise a glass to tenured achievement, standing beside all my honored colleagues, without this gnawing ambivalence in my gut.