Spurred by dissatisfaction with the University of Virginia’s pandemic response, a group of UVa employees is announcing Monday that they are forming a union and want officials to reconsider their plans for the fall semester.
The group of employees currently is mostly made up of graduate student workers. The union, part of United Campus Workers, also would include undergraduate student workers, faculty and staff, including those in the UVa Health System.
“[United Campus Workers-Virginia] was formed over the summer as a direct result of growing dissatisfaction with the university’s repeated sidelining of student and worker input when developing its pandemic response,” organizers said in a news release.
State law bars the university from recognizing the union but doesn’t prevent employees from unionizing. Employees involved with the effort said they hope to put public pressure on UVa officials to support changing to law to allow collective bargaining for state employees. UVa staff members previously had a union from 2002 to 2008.
UVa employs about 28,000 people, according to its human resources website. Organizers didn’t say how many would be eligible to join the union or how many support the effort.
Last year, a group of undergraduate student workers threatened to strike and explore unionizing if their working conditions didn’t improve. That threat was called off because state law bars strikes among state employees and they would have been fired for doing so.
Evan Brown, a doctoral student in the biology department and member of the union’s steering committee, said the group mostly consists of graduate students but they do have some staff, faculty and undergraduate employees on board.
“We want to illustrate that we’re trying to look out for everybody’s interests,” he said.
Brown said a key issue among employees is safety and health concerns related to the return of students. Some employees have said they felt forced to work on Grounds when they weren’t comfortable doing so.
“With students coming in, everybody is worried about getting coronavirus,” he said, adding that going online shouldn’t mean lost wages for employees.
He said he didn’t feel like he had a voice in the decisions made for the fall semester.
Organizers said in announcing the campaign for an online-only semester that they are worried about a lack of transparency and unclear priorities from UVa leadership and the reliance on student self-governance to avoid a local outbreak.
“It’s clear that workers and staff concerns are not at the front of their mind,” said Crystal Luo, a doctoral student in the history department and member of the steering committee.
More information about the group’s demands regarding the fall semester can be found at unitedcampusworkers.org/virginia.
Some universities that have brought students back in recent weeks have had to switch to online classes shortly afterward after rising COVID-19 cases among students.
Organizers specifically cited the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as an example. UNC sent students home after 135 students tested positive during the first week of classes.
“UNC is not that different from UVa,” Brown said. “… There’s no reason to think things will be different.”
UVa officials have said they will announce by this Friday if they decide to change course for the fall semester.
Organizers also support demands for racial equity from other students groups.
“It was important that we build on the work already being done here at UVa rather than reinventing the wheel,” Luo said. “We want the union to help bring people and resources together.”
The employees are forming the union through United Campus Workers, an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America that has local chapters in eight states, mostly in the Southeast. With Monday’s announcement, the employees are forming the ninth chapter and hope to expand to other public universities in the state.
Employees at the College of William & Mary started a union last year.
Luo said the UVa group chose to organize with United Campus Workers because of its track record at other public universities and ability to secure gains without official recognition.
University staff previously were represented by the CWA, but the Staff Union at the University of Virginia was shut down in 2008 after the group didn’t meet the CWA’s membership requirements.
Brown said this latest organizing effort is different because it includes all employees at the university.
“If enough people join us and support each other and as long as we all share the vision that we want to improve this university, then we can improve it for the most exploited and disregarded employees,” he said.
The union wouldn’t cover contract workers, some of whom were furloughed when the university ended in-person classes in March. UVa later established a $2 million fund to help those contract employees following several news reports about the struggles they were facing. Those directly employed through the university continued to receive paychecks.
After increased calls from students and the community, UVa committed last year to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for employees, including full-time contract workers.
Luo said unionizing now gives the employees a way to speak as a group and talk about common interests and issues such as health care.
“We want to have an honest conversation about how the university treats its employees,” she said.