Katherine Merisotis/The Bates Student
It has been over a month since the Bates Educators and Staff Organization (BESO) filed with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election. With the election drawing ever closer, The Bates Student reached out to the Bates administration and members of the BESO Organizing Committee (OC) to try and gather more information about their respective positions.
Some union-eligible employees were also willing to share their perspectives on the unionization efforts and why they choose to support BESO or not. Individuals who were interviewed and not in support of BESO are a part of Bates Employees say No Union (BENU).
The administration and the BESO OC were asked a series of shared questions, with the addition of a few more unique queries regarding their respective positions.
Bates College Administration
The Bates Student reached out to Bates College Media Relations Specialist Mary Pols with a number of questions regarding the unionization efforts on campus. Four of these questions were either the same or reciprocal to the first four questions asked of the BESO OC, while five others were unique questions asked of the administration.
Pols provided the following statement on behalf of the administration:
“After learning of efforts to unionize Bates employees, the college developed an FAQ and other communications to provide factual information for its employees. In its role as an educational institution and to answer the many questions raised by Bates employees, the college is providing the basic facts so that eligible voters can get a comprehensive and accurate understanding of what it means to be represented by a union, including the employment conditions under which a union operates. The college’s goal is to support those colleagues as they make an informed choice about whether or not they wish to be represented by a union.
“This is a complex time for all of us, and we have heard from many colleagues who have questions about the process and their role in it. The college will continue to answer those questions, provide updates, and make sure that all employees are aware of their rights and to correct any misinformation that might be circulating.”
The BESO Organizing Committee
What do you believe the potential benefits and drawbacks of a union are?
“The main benefit of a union is that we all get a say on matters that affect operations and dynamics of a workplace, and by doing it together we amplify what any of us could accomplish alone. Issues such as high turnover, inequality, favoritism, among others can be addressed through a thoughtfully and well-negotiated contract in good faith. But maybe the most important thing is this: the next time there’s a crisis and Bates has to make hard choices, do you want to have a real seat at the table, or be on your own and at the mercy of what a few decision-makers decide?” — Andrea Trumble, Academic Administrative Assistant
“Nothing is perfect. Any democratic decision-making takes time and commitment, and having management decide things for us can be easier and faster—until they make decisions that affect us negatively. It will take all of us to ensure that our union is strong and active, to ensure that we and the College can really work together to build and sustain the workplace we all want to see.” — Keiko Konoeda, Contingent Faculty
Why does BESO believe a union is necessary?
“It’s never been more clear that we need to be included in decision-making at Bates. Last year, the administration stopped paying into our retirement, without consulting us. Even though they eventually reinstated it, I think that was an eye-opener for many employees. After we vote yes to form our union, it will be Bates’ legal obligation to bargain with all Bates employees in good faith. That means they will no longer be able to make cuts or changes to our benefits, pay, and working conditions without our input and approval. There is so much interest in forming our union, from all across campus, because so many of us understand that we cannot be left out of conversations about wages, hours, and working conditions. Forming our union is the only way to ensure that we actually get to offer ideas and alternatives when the going gets tough.” — Joe Graziano, Dining
“Many of our coworkers have positive and supportive relationships with our supervisors. Through our union, we can work to preserve what makes those relationships work. Unfortunately, not everyone has positive relationships with their supervisors. Many of our coworkers have experienced harassment, discrimination, and bullying at work. HR has not been an effective avenue to address and stop this behavior. Forming our union would add an extra layer of support and accountability that any of us could rely on, if we choose to. If an issue with a supervisor or manager cannot be solved through conversation with them or with the help of HR, forming our union gives us options to bring in the assistance of one of our colleagues (often called a ‘shop steward’), or seek binding arbitration to resolve the issue. Collective bargaining gives an opportunity to bring up and address issues all at once in a structured, democratic way and with a more effective voice than most of us or our managers could achieve.” — Peter Osborne, Purposeful Work
Editor’s Note: Binding arbitration is the submission of a dispute to a neutral third party who hears the case and makes a decision.
“Since Bates is an at-will employer, where you can be fired at any time for any reason, bargaining for ‘just cause’ protections against unfair discipline and termination would add a level of job security so employees feel we can more easily speak up about negative behavior by managers or supervisors without fear of reprisal.” — Julia Panepinto, Athletics
Editor’s Note: Bates is an at-will employer, but cannot fire employees for illegal reasons such as race, religion or sexuality.
“Forming our union is a way to ensure that we can fulfill and advance Bates’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Too many staff of color at Bates have left due to burnout, and this high turnover impacts students, particularly students of color. Too many employees experience pushback when they try to do equity work. Through the right to collectively bargain, we could improve workplace culture for people of color by implementing concrete accountability mechanisms to address discrimination, and by rewarding DEI work or work that requires language and cultural fluency.” — Olivia Orr, Communications
“Through our union, we could also address the lack of pay transparency, which allows for significant variation for equal work. Women and people of color especially lose out on equal pay and fair promotions when there are no pay and wage scales, consistent annual raises, and step increases tied to length of service and performance — typical of most union contracts.” — Sam Boss, Harward Center
Why might some employees not wish to be part of a potential union at Bates?
“Deciding whether or not to join one’s coworkers to form a union is an intensely personal thing for many people. Each of us weighs a lifetime of personal and professional experiences in the process. But a few reasons someone might consider not joining include unfamiliarity with unions, uncertainty about whether a group of coworkers can faithfully represent individual interests, or a belief that they are better off by themselves rather than having strength in numbers. Unfortunately, the administration and their ‘labor relations expert’ have actively or tacitly spread misinformation in an effort to persuade our colleagues to vote no. Fears about losing benefits, paying mandatory dues, having their job outsourced, or having a third party speak for you or get in between you and your manager — none of these things are true about BESO and the unionization process, and none should be cited as a reason to vote no. The important thing is that colleagues are talking to each other about these questions now; and, if we form our union, everyone will continue to have a place in these conversations — regardless of how they vote in the upcoming election.” — Eddie Szeman, Resident Life
Editor’s Note: To hear the insight of those who oppose the BESO, turn to the section titled “Union-Eligible Employee Perspectives.”
If the union forms, what will the next steps be?
“After a majority of us vote yes to form our union, we will do an extensive survey of our coworkers and ask everyone to give input. Using survey responses, group meetings, and one-one-one conversations, our negotiations team will develop proposals to bring the issues, concerns and needs forward at the negotiations table with management. Everyone will be invited to participate.
We will nominate our coworkers to the negotiations team and then vote to elect that team. We will want to create a diverse team that represents the different departments, work groups, types of work and experience to make sure all of our voices, from all departments across campus, are represented throughout all parts of the negotiations process. Our negotiations team will be assisted by an MSEA staff person with experience in contract negotiations.
We would also decide membership while we bargain our first contract. Since it is up to workers to decide membership, closed shops are very rare; workers usually choose to make membership optional (open shop).
Editor’s Note: A closed shop union is where an employer agrees to only hire people who are already a member of the union. An open shop does not require its employees to be a member of a union as a condition of employment.
Once a tentative agreement on a contract is reached that our negotiations team feels reflects the goals and priorities set by their coworkers, they will bring that tentative agreement back to all Bates employees for a ratification vote. Regardless of whether or not a worker voted to unionize, every union-eligible worker (the bargaining unit) would get to vote on that first contract.
After we win a first contract and it is approved by a vote to ratify, we will work on developing our bylaws, decide on our structure of leadership and create our shop steward structure.” — Jon Michael Foley, Facilities
During this past year after BESO was first formed, how did the group work together and what was the planning process like?
“BESO has deep roots in issues and multiple work areas (e.g. grounds, custodial, contingent faculty, etc.) that predate [the organization of BESO]. Whatever momentum might have existed prior to BESO emerged from solidarity efforts that responded to feelings of institutional disenfranchisement and alienation that took shape during the pandemic as a result of the college’s simultaneous usage of two contrasting rhetorical positions: ‘We are all in this together’ and ‘Only some of us get to make the decisions about this institution.’
Though some of the people who were involved in these solidarity efforts are now involved in the OC of BESO, the solidarity efforts were much more about supporting anxious, overworked, and vulnerable co-workers in the immediacy of the pre-vaccination pandemic than they were about organizing. Though many of those people have since left Bates, it would be fair to trace the strong feelings about the wall-to-wall organizing approach to those earlier experiences of people providing much-needed support to each other in uncertain and alienating times.” — Josh Rubin, Contingent Faculty
From what we understand, BESO was originally to be made up of solely contingent faculty, but now it has expanded to encompass almost all of the departments on campus. Why was that decision made?
“BESO has never been a group of solely contingent faculty. This is a misunderstanding that came from the initial NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] petition filing. The authorization card collection moved fastest in the contingent faculty work group, and that made it possible to file the petition first and make our campaign public. From our first public communication, we were clear about our intent to form a ‘wall-to-wall’ union, and it has always been a whole-campus effort. This reflects our commitment to each other, and our shared belief that we are a stronger institution when the existence and success of our union depends on building relationships and having dialogue across work areas.” — Keiko Konoeda, Contingent Faculty
Editor’s Note: According to the NLRB, if at least 30% of workers sign cards or a petition saying they want a union, the NLRB will conduct an election.
Can Bates employees choose if they want to be in the union or not?
“We will decide together how we want to structure membership in our union. Since it is up to workers to decide membership, closed shops are very rare; workers usually choose to make membership optional. Workers unionized with MSEA have chosen open shops, agency fees, or closed shops.” — Marissa Melnick, Student Affairs
Editor’s Note: An agency fee is a fee that an employee must pay if a company’s workforce is represented by a union and the employee chooses to not join the union.
If the union does form, what process would Bates employees have to go through in order to bring up a particular issue with their manager or the administration?
“Any one of us will be just as free to bring up a particular issue with our manager as before. But forming a union does bring an extra layer of support and accountability that any of us could rely on, if we choose to. If an issue can’t be solved through conversation with a manager or with the help of HR, unionizing gives us options to bring in the assistance of one of our colleagues (often called a “shop steward”), or seek binding arbitration to resolve the issue. ” — Peter Osborne, Purposeful Work
What has the communication been like between BENU and BESO?
“Both BESO and BENU held open Q&A sessions last week, and both meetings involved conversations between members of the two groups. Personally, I’ve appreciated continued private conversations with a good friend in another unit who has been involved with BENU. From those conversations I’ve come to believe that there are some real areas of common ground to build on. One thing I’ve heard from colleagues from both BENU and BESO is an interest in establishing a Staff Council to provide input on decisions at the College. Staff have had concerns for years about a lack of input in key institutional priorities and decisions – the recent accreditation report listed this as a key issue for Bates. From the BESO perspective, a Staff Council would only be able to have a real impact if members had ‘just cause’ protections that a Union contract would provide, because this would allow us to express candid views without fear of retribution.” — Sam Boss, Harward Center
What do you think of the administration’s response to BESO so far?
“Anytime you challenge the status quo, you’re likely to face pushback, so the administration’s response has not been totally surprising. We’ve been disappointed to see so much misinformation about BESO (and unions more generally) on the Administration’s FAQ and from their ‘labor relations expert.’ We have reached out to the Administration multiple times to explore ways that we could work together to issue credible and accurate information about this process for our colleagues, but have so far had no luck getting through. What we hope will become clear is that the creation of BESO offers a real opportunity for Bates to be a leader among private colleges by moving beyond a hierarchical model across higher ed that has increasingly put key decisions in the hands of a small group of administrators. Empowering staff and contingent faculty through the formation of BESO will allow us to contribute our experiences and insights to the betterment of Bates on an equal footing, with the knowledge that we’re protected with a contract if we speak up. ” — Darlene Zupancic, Dining
Do faculty and staff on the OC feel that making their position on BESO public has affected their relationships with other members of the Bates community?
“The process of organizing together to build BESO has involved hundreds of conversations with hundreds of our colleagues, and built connections across departments and work areas that never existed before. These conversations have led to some really amazing new relationships, and strengthened others that existed before. Despite the misinformation that’s been spread, and despite some of the tension that’s spilled onto some of the email lists, these conversations are bringing to light some long-standing issues that badly need everyone’s attention. But they’re also laying the groundwork for the kind of connected and empathetic campus community we all want.” — Francis Eanes, Contingent Faculty
Union-Eligible Employee Perspectives
The Bates Student reached out to a number of union-eligible employees at Bates with the goal of gaining some more clarity as to why these extremely valuable members of the college hold their respective viewpoints about BESO. All of the respondents were neither members of the OC nor the administration and were asked similarly framed questions.
Three anti-BESO employees, who are collectively members of BENU, were willing to speak on-record, while one pro-BESO employee was willing to speak on-record.
Responses from BENU
What are your major concerns about joining the union BESO is forming?
“Some of my biggest fears are bringing the union in and then it doesn’t work out for us. It isn’t easy to say no, we don’t want this anymore. We have to go through this whole voting process to get rid of it after. The union also [prevents] us from not being able to have direct contact with our people in management. We would have to call a union representative to talk to management. Now, I can make an appointment and walk over [when I am having a problem] … Some of the other things I am worried about … We have wonderful benefits here. Our health insurance is amazing and Bates contributes to my retirement plan. I know a lot is being said in support of a union that [our retirement plan] won’t be taken away, but when they negotiate, everything gets put on the table.” — Sandy Brooks, Custodial Services
Editor’s Note: Above, BESO has claimed that forming a union will not prevent employees from speaking about issues directly to their manager.
“I don’t think Bates needs a union because we have great working conditions here. Unions are not a magic wand … everything will become a negotiable item. [The] average union wage increase is [3.3%]. Over a two or three year contract, you may get 3% the first year and then 2% the following year then 1.5% the last year … People need to realize that we will be getting pennies rather than dollars …” — Sherry Lessard, Custodial Services
Editor’s Note: First-year union wages in private non-manufacturing jobs increased 3.5% in 2020 according to Bloomberg Law. According to the data, wages increased 2.7% and 2.8% on average in the second and third years.
“I have worked [in] many different places in my career and have never felt as much support from a job [as] I do here. I have never felt like my job has ever been in danger and everyone has been a joy to work with. I feel like we have amazing benefits here and the college always makes sure they take care of us and is very family oriented.” — Jason Therrien, Facilities Services Carpenter
Why do you believe Bates does not need a union?
“We love doing what we do, and we love being around students, but those perks [of benefits and time-off] are a big part of it. A lot of companies don’t do that anymore. I feel comfortable with what I have now.” — Sandy Brooks, Custodial Services
“I have been in a union. I have worked without a contract. I have gone out there with our signs and picketed, just to [have signed] a low contract to get back to work.”— Sherry Lessard, Custodial Services
“I just feel that it is unnecessary and that nothing good is going to come from it. I’m afraid we will lose more than can be gained and will cause unnecessary rifts in our great work environment.”— Jason Therrien, Facilities Services Carpenter
Can you reflect on a particular experience that has allowed you to feel a union is not necessary?
“We just got a $1.50 raise, which was in our last paycheck, and that was something we negotiated at a meeting over in Olin. A group of custodians got together and asked our manager, ‘We are feeling a little overworked and underpaid. We are doing all of this extra work with COVID going on and we feel like we are worth more than this.’ It took a while but we did finally get our raise. It didn’t take a union to get that for us. We all sat down with Geoff Swift and told him how we were feeling, and eventually something happened.
“Something a lot of people didn’t know is that Bates didn’t have to furlough or get rid of any people on campus. We got our contributions [to our retirement fund] cut for a while, and we were mad about that, which was part of what the meeting [with Swift] was about, but across the whole campus he stopped [the retirement fund contributions] … Doing that, he kept everyone working. Immediately after things started to settle down he gave it right back to us and he paid us every penny that was stopped.” — Sandy Brooks, Custodial Services
Editor’s Note: Geoffrey Swift is the Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer at Bates.
“I can’t think of many places that would do that [not lay off workers due to COVID]. I had also just started here when my wife gave birth to my son and had some complications. They did everything they could do to give me the time to be there at the beginning, and I will be […] thankful for that.” — Jason Therrien, Facilities Services Carpenter
“Management has listened to us. We have sat down with them and let them know how we feel and what our needs are. I can call, email, or stop in anyone’s office with my concerns.” — Sherry Lessard, Custodial Services
Why do you believe some faculty and staff are pro-BESO?
“I think some of the faculty and staff are caught up in all the hate and turmoil that’s going on in the world. Look beyond what the pandemic and politics has brought us to. Bates has always been a great place to work and we can get back to that. We don’t need a third party to take a portion of our pay.” — Sherry Lessard, Custodial Services
Editor’s Note: Lessard is referring to union dues, which the BESO has reported as optional.
Responses From Pro-BESO Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics Alyssa Maraj Grahame
What are some aspects of BESO that will benefit your experience as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics?
“The most important benefit will be having a seat at the table. As a visiting assistant professor, my job is insecure — a concern that is shared by almost all contingent faculty.
When I first started at Bates in 2019, I knew that my job was temporary and that I might have to relocate for a longer-term, tenure track academic position. Bates was giving me a great start to my career. However, since the pandemic started and the academic job market dried up, I’ve worried what will happen when my contract expires.
Whether from job instability or inadequate wages, uncertainty can make the stress of the past 20 months nearly unbearable. None of this is abstract, and it impacts Bates as a whole. BESO is made up of people who understand those pressures because they have experienced them. I think everyone in the Bates community stands to benefit if BESO is part of the conversation around charting a path out of this pandemic.”
What about your experience at Bates has led you to believe that unionizing is necessary?
“I believe that unions are always necessary, full stop. Under almost any circumstances, I would support unionization both as a political economist and as an employee.
As a political economist, I don’t know of any time in history when ordinary working people’s lives substantially improved without organization by and for working people.
I would likely not be at Bates at all if not for a union that I was a member of in graduate school. Before that, I’d been barely scraping by on $12 an hour with no health insurance, and spending most of my take home pay just on childcare and rent.
At UMass Amherst, our union was called the Graduate Employee Organization, which was affiliated with United Auto Workers (UAW). I came to realize that, as a single parent with a three year old, GEO-UAW was the reason I could go to graduate school at all. Through GEO, I received subsidized, on-campus preschool for my son. With the subsidy, preschool tuition was around $50 a month instead of $1,700.
Our benefits at Bates may be generous compared to corporate employers, but during the pandemic we’ve seen that the college can take away benefits suddenly and without consultation.
When the pandemic started, Bates unilaterally announced it was suspending contributions to employees’ retirement accounts and it asked faculty to “voluntarily give back” their cost-of-living-adjustments — we had already signed our contracts — in light of the hiring and pay raise freeze that had been announced for staff. At the end of 2020, employees were given a one-time retirement payment equivalent to the total dollar amount we would have received over the preceding six months. However, this payment didn’t account for the interest we might have earned in that six-month period.
In contrast, if there were a union and a union contract, the college would likely have to come to the bargaining table and negotiate if it felt that cuts were fiscally necessary.
Supporting a union isn’t implicitly a criticism of Bates. A union introduces democratic practices into the workplace, which should be seen as a positive thing for all.”
What are your opinions on the administration’s response to the unionizing efforts so far?
“I’d encourage the administration to consider whether and how embracing BESO could advance the administration’s goals for Bates. Last year, Bates committed to doing its part to dismantle structural racism. Unions are a crucial part of that effort. Going back to the 19th century, racism persisted after the abolition of slavery in no small part because of opposition to organized labor. Bates can contribute to redress by supporting unionization. It’s an opportunity for Bates to lead the way among its peer institutions and the entire American academy.”