Until Hampshire College cynically replaced unionized staff with student workers after their latest dining contract closed in 2019, Amherst College was the only member of the Five College Consortium without a unionized worker presence. The public UMass, of course, has the strongest network of unions, but Smith and Mount Holyoke both have long-standing staff unions of their own.
While it may seem odd that a college that aims to “give light to the world” refuses to provide staff the institutions necessary to have that same ‘light’ right here, my time on The Student’s Editorial Board has made me privy to the multitude of reports we receive of administrative pressures on the staff each time we examine staffing issues at the college. Like much of the rest of our college community, staff members have chafed under a dismissive and rigid administration. But unfortunately, unlike the rest of the community, they face the threat of unemployment for speaking out.
In many of our previous interviews with staff, staff have spoken in hushed tones of quashed unionization attempts of the early 2000s and have very rarely felt comfortable having their name on the record — many have even asked us to omit their departments for fear of retribution. As we interviewed staff on Labor Day about the college’s recent staff work policies, what we saw was much the same; staff feared that complaints or suggestions would be met with reprisal rather than improvement — they feared for their jobs, especially as unemployment benefits phase out across the country. This should not be the case, but if history is any lesson, it’s not going to change on its own.
If they had a union to protect them, perhaps staff would be able to more openly challenge poor administrative policies and feel prouder to be a part of this community. Support for unions is the highest it's been since the 1950s, especially among left-leaning Americans like the majority of us here at the college, and the pandemic has provided momentum in the form of a wave of new unionizations across college campuses in the country. One unionization in particular, a “wall-to-wall” union formed by Arizona State University and University of Arizona workers, provides a particularly compelling model to build on by uniting the interests of faculty, students and staff.
Collective bargaining at the college has recently focused on the needs of students, but as the removed, authoritarian nature of the administration prompts backlash from faculty, staff and students alike, it may be time to consider broader collaboration. Recent research suggests that faculty unionization can improve the efficiency of academic institutions. Other evidence suggests a majority of Americans would like to be unionized even if they are not already — some have even gone so far as to suggest student-parent unions against college administrations in order to fight tuition increases. And for the first time in recent history, union membership has correlated with job satisfaction rather than dissatisfaction. A college-wide, or even Five College, union would be of tremendous benefit to all parties.
Ultimately, however, what recent events have made clear is the necessity of greater coordination between and support for our staff at the college. No one should need to work in an environment of fear and disarray, and an institution as wealthy and educated as the college should aspire to more than just a $20/hour wage.
For that to happen, however, staff need the support of faculty, who have greater access to the administration, and the student body, who have greater presence on campus. If faculty were to strike or students to protest as the college sought to quell staff labor rights pushes, the college might be willing to negotiate if only to avoid the bad press. One lesson I have learned over my time at Amherst is that only when we work collectively are we successful in challenging those in power. Amherst staff deserve a union, but they can’t do it on their own.