University Staff United (USU), a newly-formed University of Michigan staff union, recently announced the unionization of its first unit: information resources. Over 200 information resources staff — staff who work in libraries, museums and other U-M collections and archives — supported joining USU.
Many of these staff work closely with the librarians, archivists and curators represented by the LEO-GLAM union, which recently ratified its first-ever contract with the University. Samuel Simpson, a resource sharing specialist and USU organizer, said LEO-GLAM’s contract represents a positive change in U-M culture that USU can build on.
“We are happy for them that they were able to negotiate in good faith,” Simpson said. “That’s what we’re all looking to do: to be at the table when decisions are being made and able to negotiate something not just for ourselves, but for the University too, as a whole. We’re all working for the same goal.”
Meredith Counts, a research associate at the Museum of Dentistry and USU committee member for the information resources unit, said in addition to LEO-GLAM’s negotiations, USU is looking to build on other campus-based and national pushes for better working conditions.
“I think it’s a big moment for the GLAM fields nationally organizing — public libraries, museums — there’s a great momentum,” Counts said. “It’s a really exciting moment on campus, as well, with the nurses picketing to try to get a suitable contract, a safe contract, with LEO-GLAM’s new contract and with our majority, it’s a really exciting time.”
According to a press release from USU, information resources workers have cited a number of concerns about workplace conditions, including inequitable pay, limited opportunities for promotion or professional development, a lack of disability accommodations and inflexible policies on childcare and remote work.
Counts said, in her experience, many U-M staff struggle to make ends meet. She said USU is pushing for the University to allocate its money in a way that reflects the value of its staff.
“A lot of us can’t afford to park on campus when we come into work, or to eat on campus,” Counts said. “Those are luxuries. In fact, staff members work additional jobs to be able to afford to work at this university. And I think there’s a disconnect when we hear how many millions of dollars are being spent on a scoreboard or how many billions are in the endowment, but we have staff members living hand to mouth.”
Ashley Bates, program manager for the Zell Writers’ Program and member of the USU organizing committee, said she feels the University needs to better address the unique needs of different units and departments instead of implementing overarching policies.
“It would improve my quality of life tremendously if I had more flexibility and more opportunities to work from home, particularly in the summertime, and right now, in the summer, we’re required to come into the office two days a week really just to sit in the office because no students are here,” Bates said. “All of us are happy to be in the office if there are students to meet with us, but it feels pretty silly and pretty arbitrary, especially when we’ve seen post-pandemic that we’re all fully capable of doing this from home. We can imagine what a different, more flexible policy would look like — we’ve done it, we’ve lived it.”
According to Bates, USU is planning to expand its reach one “job family” at a time. “Job families” are umbrella terms used by the University’s Human Resources Department to describe different groups of staff. With USU just having announced majority support from the information resources job family, Bates said they are looking towards academic, student and instructional services staff next.
“The job family that has just unionized is called information resources, which is a group of library and museum staff primarily,” Bates said. “I’m in a job family called (academic), student and instructional services, and that is the next group. It’s about 1,400 staff who we are looking to unionize in the second phase of our unionization campaign, and we don’t know who the third group will be, but the goal is to go job family by job family until all (U-M) staff are part of this umbrella union called University Staff United.”
Katy Mattingly, executive secretary in the College of Engineering Dean’s office and member of the USU organizing committee, said USU is working to understand these unique needs by working directly with staff across all areas of U-M life.
“The most simple part of our work is talking to each non-union, non-protected (U-M) staff person, one person at a time, about the benefits of combining our power and asking each staff person, ‘What matters to you? What’s working in your job and what’s not working for you, and what would you want a union to fight for (on your behalf)?’” Mattingly said.
Mattingly said staff unionization, especially of those involved with student services, not only benefits the workers but the students.
“Letting me retire before I’m 75 or giving me a 9% raise instead of a 2% raise is not harmful to students,” Mattingly said. “In fact, it’s incredibly helpful to students to not have constant turnover, underpaid staff, overworked staff. So I’m especially excited that the next job family that we’re going to organize is the student services folks. They have some of the highest workload and the lowest salaries in the entire University.”
In a press release from USU, University Regent Michael Behm similarly expressed the benefits of unions for U-M culture.
“We know from experience that when workers here at (the University) organize unions, their involvement in the decisions affecting their work leads to improvements both in their own lives and in the quality of the education, research and healthcare the University is able to provide,” Behm said.
In a statement to The Michigan Daily, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University continues to support faculty and staff unionization efforts but has not officially begun talks with USU because they have not undergone the University’s union recognition process.
“The Board of Regents Resolution on Labor Organizing and Union Recognition provides the process for a union to seek the University’s recognition of a new bargaining unit,” Fitzgerald wrote. “University Staff United has not, at this point, approached the University about this recognition. As the resolution states, the University recognizes and supports the fundamental right of its employees to form unions and bargain collectively.”
Summer News Editor Samantha Rich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org