Union Theological Seminary workers and student activists rallied on Monday in protest of UTS management’s lack of receptiveness toward proposed improvements to workers’ salaries and benefits.
More than 50 protesters dressed in blue marched in front of the seminary’s main entrance, holding signs and chanting, “What’s disgusting? Union-busting! What’s outrageous? Union wages!” and “No contracts? No peace!”
The UTS branch of the Technical, Office and Professional Union, Local 2110, comprises only 12 workers, four of whom are part-time. Among the union’s requests for workers are two weeks of paid childcare leave, improvements on family health care costs, and wage increases. The union considers its demands to be relatively modest.
UTS pays health care costs only for union members below a certain wage grade, a measure which applies to one current union member. The three-year wage increases of 3 percent, 3 percent, and 2 percent offered by the administration are lower than the 3.5 percent, 3 percent, and 3 percent rate negotiated by the union in 2010. Although up to seven months of unpaid childcare leave are available to union members, there is no current option for paid leave.
Fred Davie, executive vice president at UTS, responded to union members’ complaints in a statement: “We have offered Local 2110 the same pay increases that have been granted to our non-unionized administrative staff. Giving Local 2110 employees a larger increase wouldn’t be fair to the rest of our Union family. The bottom line is that we deeply appreciate all of our Union employees, which is why we provide them with generous wages and benefits.”
UTS representatives also said that the seminary covers all of the individual health care premiums for its Local 2110 employees, something it doesn’t do for anyone else and which is almost unheard of among other employers. The seminary also pays more than 95 percent of the cost of family coverage, with the employee paying just $30 to $40 per month, and since the last contract, the seminary has hired eight new positions created specifically as Local 2110 positions.
Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein acknowledged that UTS has been under some amount of financial stress in past years—it was forced to lease some of its buildings to Columbia in 2003—but said she feels that the union has been very patient and accommodating toward the Seminary administration.
“What’s most upsetting to us is that they’ve been creating so many new positions outside the union,” she said. “They’ve made 15 new positions in the last three years, all at the executive level, and they’ve paid themselves very handsomely.”
Lisa Simon, administrative assistant to the Field Education office and a Local 2110 union member, said the protest group is “just asking for a fair audience for bargaining. We’ve met with them [the administration] four times to try and show our willingness to work with them, but they give us nothing. They just sit and stare.”
“It’s really a question of respect,” she added.
Local 2110 Vice President Booker Washington said he felt optimistic that the standstill would eventually yield positive results. “We’ve always done what we needed to do to get a fair contract,” Washington said. As Local 2110’s representative to Columbia for over 40 years, he recalled the long history of contract disputes between Columbia and union employees. “New York is an expensive place to live,” he said. “We are just looking for livable wages, livable benefits.”
Ashley Birt, a third-year UTS student studying theology and art, showed up to protest for the workers.
“They make our lives easier every day ... they support us, so I wanted to support them back.” The protesters, she said, are just “standing up for what they believe in and trying to get justice.”