Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Once again, the University of Maryland and a host of other University System of Maryland schools are doing the absolute most to avoid giving their workers the bare minimum.
Last week, state legislators and employees from various USM institutions spent two days debating House Bill 486. The bill calls for the USM to implement a single, universal USM workers’ contract rather than having to negotiate with each state institution individually. Currently, each institution’s workers have a different contract with the USM, leading to disparities in pay and working conditions across campuses. The bill would allow AFSCME — the union that represents this and other USM institutions’ workers — to finally gain a seat at the table to negotiate clearly and directly with USM. This would significantly change how much say workers have in determining the conditions they work in.
As Maryland state senator Benjamin Kramer (D-Montgomery) stated at the hearing, “There is no excuse, there is no reason, there is no logic, there is no rationale” that can justify any valid opposition to this bill.
USM currently determines the pay ranges, raises and health and safety conditions of each campus, all without directly negotiating with the union representing its workers, according to the union. Although AFSCME has the ability to come to terms with individual campuses, any contract that comes of that can still be rejected by the USM, it says. Workers have no real decision-making power in the workplace, and they have no direct input regarding the policies that have direct impacts on their livelihoods.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issues that stem from AFSCME’s inability to advocate for itself. The lack of a consistent, accessible pandemic protocol on USM’s part has resulted in issues such as “inconsistent screening requirements,” “uneven distribution of or access to PPE” and “disparity in the use of hazard pay for workers at greatest risk of exposure,” according to AFSCME. These are all things that could have been heavily influenced and standardized by AFSCME if it were able to do any kind of negotiation.
The negative impacts of a muzzled, neglected state workers’ union are especially evident at this university. This university has an unfortunately strong anti-worker history, including unsafely exposing workers to mold, shutting off housekeepers’ air-conditioning, not providing adequate safety equipment and punishing a bus driver for enforcing a mask mandate. These situations, among many others, demonstrate a pattern in which this university exploits and neglects its own workers in ways that would be a lot less possible if there were a single USM contract that AFSCME had the ability to negotiate on.
I spoke to Celina Sargusingh — AFSCME 1072’s vice president and University Health Center clinic coordinator who testified at the state hearing — about what the bill’s passing would mean at this university.
“We find that a lot of supervisors on the College Park campus, they overstep, and they’re not very knowledgeable about our [memorandum of understanding], and there’s very little consequence when they overstep,” she said. “We want institutional change on the College Park campus, and we want institutional change all the way up to the USM.”
I was somewhat confused by the arguments against the bill, particularly by those from Dawn Rhodes, chief business and finance officer and vice president at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Rhodes argued that small campus unions such as the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (which still has 800 members!) would be suppressed and ignored once they were on the same contract as bigger campus worker unions such as this university’s, which represents 3,300 members. She said this would lead to the further mistreatment of people of color in the USM. “Their voices are finally being heard,” Rhodes said. “This proposed bill could silence them again.”
This argument feels empty and aimless. The workers of smaller USM unions, particularly HBCUs, have made it very clear they support HB486 because they want the same wages, conditions and treatment as workers at bigger campuses. Rhodes’ mention of racial equity comes off as a last ditch way to oppose the bill while also sounding like she is actually concerned with the union’s wants and needs. Would increased collective bargaining power not give the same people Rhodes seems so worried about more input and control over their own conditions?
Even John King, former U.S. education secretary, said the bill would likely have the opposite impact on racial disparities. “This bill will ensure that staff at HBCUs are also allotted the same opportunities as those at predominantly white institutions,” he said in a video shared on social media.
Sargusingh also had some beef with Rhodes’ argument. “We are not looking at College Park and ignoring another campus, that’s ridiculous,” she said. “Our desire is to bring everyone up to a standard where we can thrive in our workplace and as state employees.”
This university has been neglecting the wants and needs of its most important negotiation stakeholders — its workers. Not only would this bill allow for our own campus workers to increase their say in consequential policy decisions, it would level the playing field for union workers across the entire USM system. This bill would help create a safer, fairer and more trustworthy environment. Given our awful track record on labor, this university should be doing all it can to make space for its workers to speak, rather than put in extra work to shut them down. Sargusingh said it best: “We’re looking for significant and meaningful change, not lip service.”
Malcolm Ferguson is a senior English and government and politics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.