On April Fool’s Day this year, dozens of University of Rochester students gathered on the steps of Rush Rhees with homemade signs and plenty of energy.
But this was no joke.
They were delivering a petition, signed by over one thousand students and community members, to the office of University President Joel Seligman. The topic: support for adjunct professors and full-time non-tenured faculty to have the freedom to vote on unionization in conjunction with the Service Employees International Union.
The event started with a brief statement by senior Miles Meth, one of the leaders of the activist group, and the distribution of homemade signs with sayings like, “Union Busting is Disgusting.” From there, Meth led the nearly 35 student congregation on a march to Wallis Hall, home to Seligman’s office.
Meth, carrying the stack of signatures, began a number of chants, which the marchers behind him echoed. Students looked on from around the Eastman Quad as the marchers rhymed, “What’s disgusting? Union busting. What’s outrageous? Poverty wages,” along with other topical refrains. Eventually the group arrived outside Wallis Hall and, with a final round of chants, went inside.
After an interlude in the downstairs lobby, to the surprise of a few staff members and parents, the protest group moved to Seligman’s office, where they were told the President was not around.
Following this announcement, the students lined up outside the office doors while senior Darya Nicol and sophomore Unni Kurumbail read off prepared remarks to the three administrative workers that greeted them.
“Whether it’s in a classroom, or by attending office hours, engaging with those who teach is one part of the larger process allowing us to engage in dialogue and actions that foster change, equality, and critical thinking,” declared Nicol. “Yet some of those who we’ve all had the pleasure of taking courses with are dealing with the additional burdens of job insecurity, lack of basic health care, and a lack of recognition.”
Senior Aaron Marans spoke later, urging that “contingent faculty get the opportunity to bargain for the benefits, pay, and job security that they deserve for their outsized contributions to our campus and intellectual communities.”
Upon the completion of their statements, the two student leaders handed over the petition to be delivered to Seligman.
As of Monday night, the President said he had read the petition and stands by his last statement regarding the subject, in which he said, “I am aware of the Change.org petition. If there is enough support to hold a union election, I support each relevant faculty member’s right to make this important decision.”
After the march finished, Miles Meth expressed excitement with the actions of the students and delivery of their petition.
“I think that we sent a message that the community and the students here support continent faculty in their march towards a more just workplace,” he said. “I’ve just been so excited by the level of energy…. [the professors] are so thrilled. It’s really amazing to see.”
Meth said there had not been a direct response from President Seligman, but that the Provost’s office has sent an email or two to the contingent faculty.
Professor Thomas Gibson, a tenured professor in the Department of Anthropology, has been working in tandem with the student group. He is circulating a letter to teaching faculty, for signatures, to express support for a vote on unionization.
This isn’t Professor Gibson’s first time working for unionization, either. He circulated a similar letter on behalf of service workers four years ago when they were in contract renewal negotiations. He’s optimistic about this particular movement’s future and the prospects for a final vote on unionization.
As for next steps, Meth emphasizes a desire to continue educating students on the issue.
“We want to maybe have a film screening about the national adjunct movement,” Meth said. “Totally open to the public. Potentially have a panel with some contingent faculty. Allow students to ask questions.