The Efforts of Faculty and Staff to Unionize Continue: Bates Consults Labor and Employment Lawyer, Others Oppose

To many members of the Bates community, the messages scrawled in chalk showing support for the efforts of faculty and staff to unionize on campus buildings came as a surprise on the morning of Oct. 4. However, discussions about unionizing began as early as over a year ago. 

“A whole bunch of us from different work areas at the college were having conversations about our work, how it had changed under Covid, and also how many issues predated Covid,” said Francis Eanes, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies who has been involved in the Bates Educators and Staff Organization (BESO) Organizing Committee from its inception. 

Since the morning of the chalking, Bates has witnessed the delivery of a petition from tenure and tenure-track faculty members; an email from Geoffrey Swift to faculty and staff regarding efforts to unionize; and a student-led demonstration showing support for unionization efforts. 

On Friday, Oct. 8, Jon Michael Foley, a grounds and maintenance worker, spoke to The Student about the BESO Organizing Committee and their efforts to unionize as he power-washed the messages of support off campus buildings. 

“To me [chalking] makes a lot of sense … It gets out your message and everyone can see what is going on but it is not damaging to the building,” Foley said, expressing his support for the students’ methods of communication. 

Foley has been a grounds and maintenance worker at Bates for four years and is also a communicator for the union to the staff in facilities services. “There are a lot of departments that aren’t as well represented on the [BESO] organizing committee, people are shy to join it. So I am trying to talk to the custodians and Commons workers,” Foley told The Student

Foley has been involved with BESO for only a few weeks, but in the past academic year he became active on a listserv of all Bates faculty and staff. This email thread was used by the administration to communicate changes related to COVID-19.

This was the first time Foley had been put on email threads with professors and other faculty members. “Covid just put me in a forum where I was talking with all my coworkers … I realized this was campus-wide — departments are having trouble everywhere,” Foley said. 

This listserv has since been closed. 

Some of the problems Foley cited in the past year included the discrepancy between his exposure to unmasked students in the dorms compared to members of faculty who only met students while masked in the classroom. 

It felt so dumb to put my tiny new family’s safety on the line for the benefit of the community, and then get in there only to move air conditioners…[I went from] proud of being essential one minute, to feeling silly and used for following orders the next.”

— Jon Michael Foley, Grounds and Maintenece

“Our department was the first to be called back after students were sent home and the campus closed,” Foley said. “This was when there were lines outside stores, toilet paper was missing, [and] mask usage [was not yet a common practice].”

Foley had returned to work in early April. 

At this time, the grounds and maintenance department was made up of three or four people depending on the week, and their tasks consisted of making deliveries and cleaning up the deserted campus. 

“I had just figured out my wife was pregnant when I was asked to report for my first day back. We had two weeks at home and I was tempted to stay buttoned up, but [I] decided that my Nanas had both worked the shipyards during World War II. My version of contributing to the world would be off loading trucks for Bates College,” Foley explained. 

In context of the pandemic, the College has since provided a paid sick leave bank of 15 days (or 120 hours) for all employees starting July 1, 2020. 

During Foley’s first week back working, his first task was to install air conditioning in President Spencer’s house. In Foley’s house, his family had already begun using masks and practicing social distancing. He was surprised when he got to work that no one on the scene was masked. 

“It felt so dumb to put my tiny new family’s safety on the line for the benefit of the community, and then get in there only to move air conditioners and playing with my retirement benefits. As a cost-saving measure in the face of financial uncertainty, they stopped adding to the retirement plan and matching my contributions. They later cut us two checks to simulate contributions. [I went from] proud of being essential one minute, to feeling silly and used for following orders the next,” Foley said.

Mary Pols, media relations specialist for the Bates Communications Office, gave The Student the following statement regarding Foley’s concerns about his retirement plan, “There was a pause in retirement contributions during that time of financial uncertainty in spring 2020 when we had no idea what the pandemic would do to all of us. And then this year, in June 2021, there was a retroactive restoration to both the pension (an amount equaling 9 % of your salary after a year of employment) and the separate employee 403b plan (where you contribute and the company matches at 50 % up to your 6%). Some people would refer to this as being made whole…So there was a delay in receiving these contributions, but this enabled us to keep everyone employed even with the campus shut down and questions about what the 2020-2021 academic year would look like.”

The announcement regarding these financial changes during the pandemic can be found here.

The Push for Neutrality

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, Geoffrey Swift, the Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer, sent an email to faculty and staff regarding “organizing activity on campus.” 

No one can make an informed choice if they hear only one side of a story. That is simply not how deliberative processes or democratic elections work, particularly at an educational institution.”

— Clayton Spencer, President of Bates College

Swift explained that the college had been notified earlier that week from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that a petition had been filed on behalf of the non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, instructors and lecturers to be represented by the Maine Service Employees Association (MSEA-SEIU Local 1989). 

In bold the email affirmed that “Bates will protect the rights of every eligible employee to organize and to vote in a secret ballot election.”

The college has chosen not to remain silent on the unionization efforts. In a second email on Oct. 12, Bates College President Clayton Spencer wrote, “No one can make an informed choice if they hear only one side of a story. That is simply not how deliberative processes or democratic elections work, particularly at an educational institution.”

When members of the BESO Organizing Committee were prompted, the overwhelming answer to whether Swift’s message was a statement of neutrality from the college was “no.”

The college also clarified that Swift’s email does not constitute a formal neutrality agreement, which is a shared sentiment of Olivia Orr, the Bates Web Designer.

“[Swift’s] statement does not constitute a formal neutrality agreement,” Orr explained to The Student. “Neutrality agreements are formal, binding contracts between unions and employers, signed by both parties, under which the employer agrees to let employees exercise their legal right to form a union with their coworkers in an environment free from the common intimidation, harassment, and delay tactics by employers in anti-union campaigns.”

Many universities have formal neutrality statements between the institution and their unions once the union is officially formed. Examples of such formal statements between institutions and officially formed unions include St. Louis University, Fordham University, and Barnard College. Georgetown University released a statement similar to Bates’ in that it is not a formal neutrality statement

The Georgetown University’s letter to faculty about organization for a union cited their Just Employment Policy and stated, “our University respects employees’ rights to freely associate and organize, which includes voting for or against union representation without intimidation, unjust pressure, undue delay or hindrance in accordance with applicable law.” 

An article published by The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) also refers to a “signed agreement” from Barnard College with the union to allow “most tenure-track faculty to vote on whether to unionize in a mail ballot” election. This agreement was also signed after the formation of the union at Barnard College.

Grinnell College appears to have the only neutrality statement formed before the official formation of a union.

Jacob Ellis, the Men’s Cross Country Assistant and Track and Field Distance Coach as well as a member of the BESO Organizing Committee, explained that a statement of neutrality would allow for faculty and staff to understand the “pros and cons” of unionizing without the fear of repercussions.

“Nobody wants a long, drawn-out, back-and-forth campaign and the best way to move along through the process is to make sure each person is well informed about their options,” Ellis said to The Student

The repercussions that Ellis describes would be illegal, and the college has stated in its live Q&A that “Every employee has the right to support or not support the union and to express their point of view. Bates will not tolerate or engage in interference with these rights, and we will respect the outcome of the election, whichever way it goes. The college will not, however, remain silent during this critical period, as has been urged by some faculty and other members of the community. No one can make an informed choice if they hear only one side of a story.”

Before 8:00 a.m. on Oct. 7, Erica Rand, Professor of Art, Visual Culture and Gender and Sexuality Studies, sent the “Bates Faculty Petition for Neutrality Towards Bates Employees,” signed by 70 tenure-track and tenured faculty members, to the college’s administration. 

Nobody wants a long, drawn-out, back-and-forth campaign and the best way to move along through the process is to make sure each person is well informed about their options.”

— Jacob Ellis, Men’s Cross Country Assistant and Track and Field Distance Coach

Later the same day, President Clayton Spencer, along with other members of administration, met with Nicholas DiGiovanni, a labor and employment lawyer. 

DiGiovanni specializes in labor and employment matters pertaining to colleges and universities, specifically looking at collective bargaining with faculty, staff and graduate student unions. In the past, DiGiovanni has successfully litigated at the National Labor Relations Board the managerial status of all full time faculty members at Tufts University Medical School and Elmira College. 

DiGiovanni did not respond to The Student’s request for comment on the meeting.

In protest of this meeting, students gathered outside Pettengill Hall at these same hours to show their support for the unionization efforts.

The college clarified that the meeting in Pettengill on Thursday morning is standard response to the petition filed with the National Labor Relations Board, and as a result, the union initiated a legal process for all parties, including the college.

The college held an educational session for supervisors with the college’s legal counsel in order to provide guidance on the laws regarding organization, ensure compliance, and to answer questions.

Mary Pols also clarified that, “Failure to conduct such training would be irresponsible. Bates intends to have a free, fair, and lawful exchange of ideas on this important topic.”

Instances of Intimidation

The Student has been informed of several potential instances of intimidation directed toward faculty and staff relating to the unionization efforts.

Foley specifically encountered intimidating exchanges between himself and members of management. At approximately 9:30 a.m. on the day of Swift’s email, the maintenance crew was sent to do a project while the manager spoke to Foley alone. He was told that he “wasn’t allowed to use the internet [at Bates] to coordinate” or “ speak to anybody while they were on the clock.”

The college has stated that this falls under section 120 of the Employee Handbook regarding solicitation and distribution of materials. The handbook defines solicitation as “approaching anyone for any of the following purposes: offering anything for sale, asking for donation, collecting funds, canvassing or seeking to promote, encouraging or discouraging (i) participation in order support for any organization, activity, or event, or (ii) membership in any organization or group. Handing out or delivering membership cards or applications for any organization is considered solicitation.”

After The Student asked the college to comment on generic instances of intimidation, Mary Pols vocalized that “Bates is committed to providing a work environment that is free from intimidation or coercion. Employees are urged to contact Hope Burnell ([email protected]) in Human Resources for additional support if they feel they have been harassed or intimidated in any way by anyone either for or against the union.”

Foley felt as though this was a contradiction of Swift’s statement sent to faculty and staff, saying, “I didn’t like that and it sounds exactly what they said they wouldn’t do in the email from the same day.”

Foley is referring to the section of Swift’s email that stated, “Bates respects the right of each employee to make an informed choice about whether or not they wish to be represented by a union, and we are committed to providing a work environment that is free from intimidation or coercion.”

The college has reiterated that this is not a formal statement of neutrality, as such formal statements are generally agreed to after the formation of a union.

According to Foley, there have also been cases where a staff member he has spoken to abruptly stops supporting the union. “Particularly pertaining to some custodians I have been speaking to, one afternoon they had one opinion and by the next day they were completely flipped and didn’t want to be in the same room as me,” Foley observed. 

Additionally, Eanes mentioned that he had been made aware of multiple potential instances of intimidating or otherwise anti-union behavior from managers and administrators, but The Bates Student was unable to verify these claims.

Eanes recognizes that it is not his “business” to speculate the intentions of managers and members of administration who are engaging in the behaviour listed above. However, he believes it is important to note that the above actions exceed any reading of neutrality and can be labeled as interference with BESO’s efforts to unionize, “especially considering the power differential and the broader context of precarity in which all this is happening.” 

The college has also posted a live Q&A on the Bates website as a place to ask questions anonymously.

About MSEA and the Logistics of the Union

The BESO made the decision to join MSEA for a multitude of reasons, including their experience with supporting workers organizing at non-profit, mission-driven institutions. MSEA currently supports the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maine, the Preble Street Resource Center and the Planned Parenthood organizations of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. 

With over 13,000 thousand members, the union will be joining adjunct faculty and staff at other Maine colleges and universities, including community colleges throughout the state and workers at the Maine Maritime Academy. 

Eanes also indicated that their ability to support a relatively large number of workers — 650 — was also a reason for the decision to join MSEA. 

“Perhaps most importantly, their track record aligns really well with the ethos and underlying orientation of our [Organizing Committee], which from the beginning has been committed to a bottom-up, rank-and-file, worker-driven union in which everyone has a voice,” Eanes explained to The Student.

If the BESO is successful in forming the union, eligible workers will be invited rather than compelled to join as a dues-paying member only after a first contract has been negotiated and approved. 

Orr added that almost all unions in Maine are “open shops,” meaning everyone chooses whether they want to be a dues-paying member. This union will be no different. 

As The Bates Student understands, union dues will be 1.5% of a member’s gross pay.

Speaking to members of staff who are concerned about paying dues, Eanes said, “dues are how you gain the resources to win solid contracts — including pay raises that in some cases will far exceed 1.5% — and how you sustain the organization you’re building together with your coworkers.”

While Eanes’s statements are valid, it is important to point out that the school has provided annual raises to its returning staff, many of which are eligible to be represented by the union. Additionally, over the course of the last 20 months, the college has adjusted wages several times, including most recently raising the minimum wage to $15.50.

The current benefits package for employees includes eligibility for a medical, dental, and life insurance program, as well as reimbursement accounts and long-term disability benefits. For more details on the comprehensive benefits package visit the guidebook here

President Spencer’s Message to Faculty and Staff

Published and sent to faculty and staff members on Oct. 12, President Spencer addressed the “issues and questions” that have arisen due to the union organization efforts at Bates. This same message was also forwarded to students.

President Spencer explained that Bates had been notified last week on two separate occasions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that MSEA had filed two petitions: the first on behalf of non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, instructors and lecturers, and the second expanded this group to include all staff members who are not managers, confidential employees, guards and supervisors. 

The message also informed faculty and staff of a secret ballot election conducted by the NLRB that will likely occur in the coming weeks. It is not yet known which employees will be eligible to vote. It is the NLRB who decides whether or not certain employees the union seeks to represent belong in the same group, and whether all eligible employees will vote in a single election. 

Continuing the message, President Spencer reasserted from Swift’s email that Bates strives to “protect the rights of all eligible employees to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to be exclusively represented by this union.”

President Spencer added that unions do not stand for reelection, unless in the case where a union is “decertified,” which rarely happens. 

The message was concluded in context to the pandemic. “We are coming off a particularly difficult period with the pandemic, which has placed significant burdens on many employees and created a sense of vulnerability and risk for many members of our community,” the message read. 

Perspectives on the Union

Foley was on his way “out the door” before he heard of unionization efforts. “I was really frustrated with this place and there are things that I run into that could be solved with one decisive action, but instead, they put bandaids over issues that deserved surgeons,” Foley stated. Morale was instantly boosted for Foley both when he was able to work for a solution and when he received overwhelming support from students. 

Bates has had its ups and down, but they always come to take care of us. Covid was hard on everybody … We are getting there.”

— Tammy St. Amant, Custodial Services

Tammy St. Amant, who has been a member of the custodial staff for three years, is against the union. “We are doing okay without the union,” St. Amant commented. “Bates has had its ups and down, but they always come to take care of us. Covid was hard on everybody … We are getting there.” 

Ellis cited his personal concerns in support of the union, including hourly wage, the limitations on out-of-season hours for single-season coaches and the inability to give “merit” raises. “I love my job at Bates and working with my team and coworkers, but it is tough knowing I would make more money at the Wendy’s down the street than I do working full-time in my fifth year as a coach on a highly successful team at one of the best schools in the nation,” he said. 

As a lecturer in Japanese, Keiko Konoeda discusses how the first-year language courses at Bates strive to create an inclusive learning environment. Although Konoeda admires the work of colleagues who have partnered with Japanese language courses to promote equity and inclusion, she sees “a troubling pattern of institutional under-appreciation, under-staffing, and under-funding.” 

After working at the college for 31 years, not only will I have the right to participate in decision-making and negotiate as equals with the college, but all of our workers will finally be able to have a voice about the things we all care about.”

— Darlene Zupancic, Communication and Employment Coordinator for Bates Dining

Additionally, having a union will allow for a campus-wide space to share constructive ideas without any worries on how this indirectly influences contract renewals. “I will be able to advocate for the talented and dedicated staff colleagues, so that my staff partners in teaching can thrive, and so can my students,” Konoeda remarked. 

For Tiffany Salter, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Film, and Screen Studies and English, it is her last year at Bates. “My experience would have been improved if I had been afforded stability by being able to negotiate for things such as relocation reimbursement like my colleagues receive; not receiving less to teach an FYS, which comes with extra labor; and receiving renewal contracts in a timely manner that allowed me peace of mind,” Salter stated. “Having a union would mean being able to negotiate as a group so that Bates offers a baseline fair package to folks for their first jobs as professors.”

Darlene Zupancic, the Communication and Employment Coordinator for Bates Dining, explained, “After working at the college for 31 years, not only will I have the right to participate in decision-making and negotiate as equals with the college, but all of our workers will finally be able to have a voice about the things we all care about.”

For further inquiry about the union, you may direct your questions to the following members of the BESO Organizing Committee: Darlene Zupancic ([email protected]), Jacob Ellis ([email protected]), Olivia Orr ([email protected]) and Francis Eanes ([email protected]). 

Additionally, questions can also be sent to assistant vice president for Human Resources at Bates, Hope Burnell ([email protected]), or posted on the live Q&A.