There is currently a labor dispute at UR. To clarify, I’m not talking about the “Shame on the University of Rochester” folks picketing the front entrance to our campus. The labor dispute I’m talking about is one occurring, as you read this sentence, throughout all of the University’s campuses, from the Eastman School of Music and the River Campus to the Memorial Art Gallery and the UR Medical Center (URMC).
The workers organized under the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals 200 and 1199 Healthcare Workers at URMC are currently in contract negotiations with UR’s Office of Human Resources.
To clarify, these are the very people who cook our food, clean our bathrooms, deliver our mail and ensure that our university functions like a healthy, living organism.
The previous contract that covered the workers for the past two years expired on Sept. 22, and the result of current contract negotiations will determine the workers’ wages, benefits and livelihood for the next two years.
What are the workers asking for? Simply the same living wages and benefits that they have previously received and that they still deserve. Then why are negotiations at a standstill?
The University, in order to pinch a couple pennies, is asking for major concessions from the workers and is attempting to eliminate multiple existing benefits. UR has presented a deal that will cut benefit programs such as the SEIU Training Fund, the SEIU Childcare Fund and, most controversially, the existing healthcare program.
The University is attempting to take away current healthcare benefits from workers and their families, and replace them with mandatory, University-provided insurance. Currently, the workers’ healthcare expenses are completely covered through an SEIU national healthcare fund, which the UR pays into.
The University’s proposed changes, however, will force workers to pay a large deductible from each paycheck, amounting to more than $3,000 each year for health coverage. This change will dramatically decrease the standard of living for the workers, who earn significantly less annually than one semester’s tuition.
Considering the University is the largest employer in the city of Rochester, and Strong Memorial Hospital is the most profitable hospital in Western New York, these changes will affect not just the workers and their families, but also our community as a whole.
In response, the workers have rejected this regressive offer and are now fighting to maintain the fair wages and benefits they deserve. Unfortunately, their struggle is proving to be a difficult one.
Despite a history of civil relations between the union and the University, this past Saturday, Sept. 29, Tracey Harrison, an administrative organizer for 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers who sat at the official negotiating table, was detained by University security as he made a routine walk around URMC, and was subsequently arrested by the Rochester Police Department (RPD). According to union representatives, Harrison was granted permission to enter campus by University security when he first arrived.
Roughly 15 minutes later, however, while simply completing his routine daily rounds, the same security guards suddenly detained him, declaring that he was in a “restricted area” and subsequently summoned the RPD.
The union is unsure if the administration directly ordered the detainment and subsequent arrest, but some members believe this to be the case.
Harrison is currently charged with trespassing and will appear in court on Oct. 17.
The union is demanding that the charges be dropped, and furthermore, in response to this completely arbitrary and possibly illegal anti-union act, the union has filed an Unfair Labor Practice case to the National Labor Relations Board.
If intimidating labor organizers isn’t enough to prove just how determined the University is to break the power of the union, the school is also offering a one percent annual wage increase to be included in the new collective contract for union workers, while offering a 2.5 percent annual wage increase for non-union workers.
Faced with a combination of unfair deals and union-busting intimidation tactics, the workers have asked the students for their support, and there are currently petitions circulating our campus stating simply that we support them in their struggle for a fair contract.
Additionally, the workers have announced that they will, in fact, be picketing on Meliora Weekend, starting on Friday, Oct. 12.
The union has asked students for their support and to join them on the picket lines wearing purple in solidarity.
In order to foster a better university community, we need both happy students and happy workers. Help support the very people we know, love and depend on to thrive here at UR.
Bruckenthal is a member of the class of 2013.