BY ANNA FEDER & ILLONA YUKHAYEV
“Our workers and staff deserve a living wage with benefits.”
On May 2nd, the Emerson Staff Union went to Fenway Park to recruit support from our newest alumni at their combined 2020/2021 Commencement. We were there to congratulate them, recognize how difficult their senior year had been, and ask them if they would stand with us. We shared our struggles with the administration and asked them to write a postcard of support for us to send to a member of the College’s board of trustees. The answer we heard over and over from both students and their families was a resounding “YES!”
We basked in both the intermittent sunshine that day and the appreciation of the students that we all work so hard to support. Their voices as students and now newly minted alumni carry a weight with the institution that ours, sadly, does not. Here is what they had to say:
“Couldn’t have graduated without them!” “Please treat the people who made my college experience worth it with the respect and financial compensation they deserve.”
“Our workers and staff deserve a living wage with benefits. I will not donate as an alum unless their needs are met!”
So, Why do we need support? At the start of the pandemic, management cut benefits and froze wages for all non-union staff. They approached the Emerson Staff Union whose benefits and raises were protected by a contract and asked us to sacrifice a significant portion of our benefits including our retirement match and vacation days.
They also wanted to take the entirety of our raises to save jobs on campus (both union and non-union positions). We agreed to suspend some of our benefits and delay our raises until the financial outlook was more clear.
Management promised that if the College’s losses were at the low end of projections, they would begin a conversation about reinstating our raises in December 2020. Despite those losses being several million dollars lower than their lowest projection, the College refuses to commit to giving anything tangible back.
Six months later, we are still waiting for the administration to reinstate or discuss reinstating our wages and benefits. When we ask about how they will make us whole after a year of sacrifice both monetary and otherwise, their response is to stall and send the staff a packet of “seeds of gratitude.”
While we wait, employees and their loved ones suffer. The starting salary for an entry level administrative job is $36,000, well below the poverty line for a family of two in Boston or any of the surrounding areas.
We already live in tiny apartments with several roommates because our wages don’t support more privacy, and we’ve spent a year working from our kitchen tables hoping to schedule Zoom appointments that don’t conflict in between ramen noodles and barely acknowledged overtime. After a year when our healthcare premiums rose 9% (after increasing 17% the previous year) and we were also saddled with the costs of working from home (upgraded internet, additional heating costs, and hardware like routers and webcams), many of us are experiencing significant financial strain.
We now know Emerson was able to weather the storm, and the financial outlook of the college is good. This left many of us wondering why staff who don’t make a living wage are still waiting for increases that barely keep up with the cost of living in Boston. We also wonder how the college administration found the resources to create more executive positions this academic year, and higher-ups got promotions and raises. So we took to the streets outside of Fenway Park.
We had alumni who are now unionized staff with us. We had bubble dispensers. We had pro-labor signs. We brought life partners, children, and even an enthusiastic puppy. We offered to take family pictures for the recent grads and asked them to support us in our struggle. They agreed. They listened and understood. Some had parents in unions who approached us with words of support. This is what a meaningful action looks like: members of a community coming together to support each other. In theory, staff and administration are part of the same community. But rather than help us or even acknowledge our needs, the administration has chosen to treat us as an enemy, or worse: an inconvenience.
This will not be the last action. We’re just warming up. We are calling on Emerson to do right by its employees, and we have support from our community. We want to see our 3.9% contractually agreed upon raises returned to us from the date they were suspended. We did not sacrifice our hard earned dollars to line the pockets of executives, and we will not stand by as our most vulnerable staff—the same staff who kept Emerson afloat and thriving during a global crisis—struggles to make enough money to live.