Union Protest

Members of AFSCME Local 1699 line the sides of East State Street, where the group was attempting to garner community support and awareness of the workers’ plight.

Around 100 individuals lined the sidewalks of East State Street Saturday morning, a chorus of horns often arising from the passing vehicles.

Although the mood was upbeat, the group’s purpose was to garner support from the Athens community as the union heads back to the table to negotiate with Ohio University administrators. The protest was planned loosely Thursday, but came into further clarity for purpose Friday evening as a new round of cuts was announced.

“We want these jobs back, we think this is wrong,” said John Johnson, Athens Regional Director for AFSCME Council 8 during the Saturday event. “Bad decisions — you guys don’t deserve this. You’re essential employees, Ohio University needs you guys and the students need you. This is ridiculous. We did fair negotiations with Ohio University, we passed our contract, and they reneged on their part.”

Many of the workers at Saturday’s protest held similar views. Chris Wood-Taylor, who works on the cleaning staff of the classrooms, said she was notified she would be losing her job. She’s been working for OU for nearly eight years, she said, and due to her seniority may be able to “bump” a staff member with less experience to maintain her employment. She expressed fear for her colleagues that are not able to do so, noting that there isn’t another company like OU in the area.

“What else do we have that employs hundreds of people at more than minimum wage with retirement, with decent health insurance — I mean, I quit a job eight years ago, working in my field with my college degree to take a job here for the retirement,” she said, noting her degree was in social work. “I’m hopeful that I’m going to be able to bump.”

However, she expressed some regret about bumping.

“I have to pick someone with the same job title as me who has worked there less time than I have,” Wood-Taylor explained. “They gave me a list with people’s names on it. So I’m not just saying I’ll take the next job-position as a custodian, I have to write her name down on a piece of paper that says I’m taking her job. It’s very personal.”

It’s just one of the many wrinkles in how the job eliminations and non-renewals will play out. For the 53 faculty members let go, each will have a “terminal year” of teaching, and so will remain at the university, if they so choose, through the end of Spring 2021.

The University released several items detailing the cuts Friday evening.

“We already have announced a hiring freeze, limitations on spending and travel, a review of all in-progress capital projects, and a suspension of new capital projects,” Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Sayrs said in a letter to the community. “Approximately two weeks ago, nearly 190 positions in AFSCME were abolished, for a savings of approximately $11.3 million.”

There were 53 non-renewal notices handed out to instructional faculty members Friday as well — who and what departments these cuts are in has yet to be released.

Sayrs noted that 74 tenured faculty in addition to administrators who hold tenured faculty rank chose to participate in the Voluntary Separation or Retirement Plan (VSRP) this spring, for savings of more than $10.3 million in salary and benefits. The University also noted that a university-wide furlough plan will also save $13 million in revenue.

However, a university spokesperson confirmed that there will not be a comprehensive financial impact stated until new administrative positions are filled and those salaries determined. The spokesperson said that more details will be made available at the close of the fiscal year.

“These are important steps, but they are not enough to ensure our financial stability,” Sayrs wrote.

Nellis wrote that 149 administrators were notified that “their positions are being abolished.”

“As part of University-wide realignment projects in communications and marketing and University Advancement, as well as departmental reorganizations, the University expects to rehire 55 administrators into new positions,” Nellis wrote. “As we move employees into newly defined roles, we expect a net reduction of administrative positions of 94.”

About 400 employees will be seeking new employment as a result of these actions.

“We have partnered with an external organization to provide transition support to any faculty or staff member affected by these or future notifications,” Nellis wrote. “Our partner has experience working with professionals in both academic and administrative fields and will help impacted employees with support such as strengthening their resume or CV, developing career marketing plans, and connecting with recruiters.”

However, how this will help members of AFSCME Local 1699, where workers are located in culinary and janitorial departments mostly, remains unclear. On May 11, the Ohio University Board of Trustees voted down the previously-negotiated collective bargaining agreement.

Wood-Taylor, a custodian whose position was eliminated, said she’s unsure how her department will be able to function effectively due to the layoffs.

“My shift lost 39 custodians,” she explained. “So they want to have class next fall? We clean the classrooms. Right now, my specific area lost 15 employees. So it is down to five employees that will cover 20 classroom buildings and five (on-campus) houses that have offices. So how clean do you feel that area will be clean when the students return? Right now, when there’s nobody in those buildings, it’s fine, but when school comes back on campus, they have to have more people.”

According to Mandy Stovart, AFSCME Local 1699 Treasurer, who works in OU’s culinary department, the circumstances surrounding that agreement were less than ideal.

“There have been 140 employees out of our local union that have been displaced, the bottom 140 people in all departments will be laid off,” she explained. “We’re here for community awareness that OU has done to this to the community, not just Athens...Parkersburg, Pomeroy, Lancaster, Logan, they’re going to be feeling the effects of all of this just because they want to get rid of 140 union members.”

She noted that her position in the Culinary department was not eliminated, but that “seasonal layoffs” happen each summer for the department due to the lower attendance rates. However, those layoffs typically are just transfers to other departments, such as those deep-cleaning the dorms in preparation for the next semester.

“So we’ve never actually had to be laid off,” she explained. “A few people have actually chose to take the summer off with no pay. But now there’s no choice at all. There’s some unemployment for some of the people right now, but because of the virus that we’re dealing with, which has nothing to do with this, there is some severance pay. But that’s only because the state and the government has allowed that to happen.”

Stovart said she is seeking for OU to rescind the layoffs, stating the shifts will be and currently are understaffed.

“It’s just going to be a major disaster come August when the students come back,” she said. “When the students come back it will be one, maybe two people per dorm that has to clean the entire dorm. They used to have one person per two floors, so usually two people per dorm. We can’t do our jobs effectively.”

The second round of layoffs on Friday, May 15 added new voices to the crowd, but the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors has been voicing concerns about possible employee cuts for months, and also concerns about the increasing budget worries for years.

The group stated in a press release that it “strongly opposes” the firing of 53 instructional faculty and the elimination of 94 administrative positions.

“University leadership, which has chosen to rely on mass firings to deal with the university’s financial crisis, has now fired almost 300 employees, including 140 classified staff a couple of weeks ago, with more to come,” the group’s statement read. “The firing of so many valuable employees is a disaster for Ohio University and the communities it serves.”

The group maintains that there are options for the University’s budget that have been overlooked, even releasing an “open source alternative budget” that was prepared by senior university faculty.

“If Ohio University is going to continue its 216-year mission to serve the educational and economic needs of southeastern Ohio, university leaders need to adopt a different strategy for dealing with the budget deficit, one that prioritizes the university’s academic mission and the people who fulfill it,” the group stated.

Julie White, vice president of OU-AAUP, said she thinks it is important to show support for the union members, as well as the other employees facing job insecurity now.

“Our jobs are really critical to the economy, not just to the city of Athens, but also the surrounding communities,” she said.

When it comes to moving forward, White said she hopes that there is a chance during the next year to convince administration to not let faculty go from the university.

“We need those people who deliver the kind of education that our students have come to expect from Ohio University and resulted in incredibly loyal alum,” she said. “I’m really hoping we can all work together to bring those people back who lost their jobs as colleagues and faculty.”

However, when it comes to administrative cuts, she asked where the cuts were to be implemented.

“One of my concerns is that lower-paid administrators may be among them, and that doesn’t do very much to solve our budget problem, but many of those people are also very integrated into the educational mission,” she said. “So, the concern about administrative bloat is really at the top end, and I’m worried that’s not where the administrative cuts have come from, but there hasn’t been a lot of transparency so it isn’t clear where those cuts are coming from.”


Willard is the assistant editor of the Athens Messenger.

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