Emerson College staff have been meeting as much as twice a week after redoubling efforts to conclude 20 months of negotiations between their union and the university’s management.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 888 Emerson Staff Union was created in late 2017 and has 140 members that provide administrative services and support to students and faculty. The group has since been working to establish their first contract with the school.
The negotiations began to take on a more contentious tone in the fall, said Illona Yuhaev, one of the union’s informal leaders. The group originally expected their talks with management to feel conversational.
“But, when it came to compensation or benefits [Emerson College’s negotiators] just dug their heels in and employed all these tactics,” she said. “That made us realize having a union is not just having a committee come talk to management. It’s having the tools to put pressure on them.”
The staff union began to organize actions such as rallies or petitions in the fall after they felt dissatisfied with the pace of negotiations. In April, the union filed charges against Emerson College with the National Labor Relations Board for unfair labor practices.
The charges include complaints that the college failed to bargain in good faith by making unilateral changes and had violated workers’ rights to engage in collective activity.
“Basically, they’ve not been playing fair,” said Yuhaev. “They did not respond to our economic proposal for three months. Then they withheld our annual raises that year, because they said we’re negotiating for it. There’s also been charges about individual discipline.”
Union members are trying to remain positive, said Nancy Howell, senior copy editor at Emerson College, but negotiations have gone on a long time. She hopes the increased efforts on both sides will result in an agreement soon.
“I think both sides want to wrap it up at this point,” she said. “Both sides are picking up the pace. We want to get this done. We’re hoping to be done in a month or so, though that may be optimistic.”
Though the union’s members are growing more frustrated, Yuhaev said that only makes them more motivated.
“People who show up for actions have become more motivated as they see these things happen,” she said. “No one wants to spend their lunch break outside holding a sign, but that’s what we’re doing.”
There have been recent positive developments, however. On May 1, Emerson College’s president, Lee Pelton, came in person to receive a petition of 1,000 signatures from the union, which Yuhaev interpreted as acknowledgment at the university’s highest level.
Union members hope to see progress on May 10, when the next negotiation round will occur, but the group is also organizing for further demonstrations.
Emerson College remains active over the summer, and Yuhaev said the union is prepared to continue it campaign if it must.
“Campuses are always busy, there’s always something,” she said. “If this continues, there will be ample opportunities in the summer.”