Employees protest as UMass-Boston celebrates 50 years

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 7, 2014....As University of Massachusetts officials marched from the State House to Boston Common to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston campus, more than 100 university employees held their own procession, protesting sick time and vacation pay concessions the university is asking them to make.

Protestors quietly stood in the background as UMass officials and local dignitaries, including former Senate President Robert Travaglini - an alumnus - and current UMass President Robert Caret, described the transition of the campus, from its formation in 1964 on the site of a former landfill to its status as a modern, harbor-front urban campus where students can "realize the American dream."

Protestors painted a different picture of working at the state university. They held signs that read, "UMass works because we do" and "A great public university must be a fair employer." The Faculty Staff Union at UMass Boston is at odds with university officials over a maximum sick-leave accrual of 120 days for new hires, and other caps on vacation.

"What's remarkable about this is there's no financial crisis leading to this," Marlene Kim, president of FSU at UMass Boston, told the News Service after the celebration event. "It is very unprecedented for these attacks on the workers, and it is system-wide."

She said future employees facing life-threatening illnesses would be negatively affected by the cut in sick time accrual. Employees can donate sick leave to their colleagues.

"It doesn't happen to many employees, but when it does, it's needed," Kim said.

Other union employees are upset about professional staff being asked to work without comp time, according to Kim.

"There are a lot of protections for staff that the university has that they want to get rid of because they are saying no one else has them," Kim said. "What I say is you don't get rid of something just because it's a good program. If it is a good policy you want to keep it."

UMass spokesman Robert Connolly said the university has agreements with six of the 33 unions whose contracts expired June 30. University officials want to cap sick and vacation time for future union employees to equalize their benefits with some non-unionized employees, he said.

"That would be reducing some of our unfunded liabilities," Connolly said.

Negotiations continue, and UMass officials hope to have the disputed aspects of the contracts resolved soon, Connolly said. Approximately 13,000 university employees, including faculty, staff and other unionized employees on all five campuses are affected, according to Connelly.

"We're willing and eager negotiators, so we would like to have them done as soon as possible," he said.

University professors and faculty, along with and current and former state lawmakers, filled a tent on Boston Common to celebrate the golden anniversary of the Boston campus, including Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth), Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), and former Senate President William Bulger, who was the president of UMass from 1996 to 2003. Bulger sat in the front row, but did not make a speech.

During the ceremony, Secretary of Education Matthew Malone said UMass Boston makes the City of Boston and the Commonwealth proud.

"It's a special day, an important day for a Boston institution; a Boston institution that for a half century has proven what great determination and focus can get you; a Boston institution that has led the way in making college available to all, not just those who could afford it," Malone said. "A Boston institution that today has a national reputation of what an urban public education campus can be, and is capable of."

Malone said UMass Boston educates some of the best students from urban schools.

"UMass Boston is driven by a deep understanding of what comes from hard work and determination," said Malone, who was once superintendent of Brockton schools.

UMass Boston Chancellor Keith Motley said it is a "university open to all, especially first generation students who have the audacity to dream." In 1964, while the country was still mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement was taking hold, and urban unrest was plaguing the country, Massachusetts lawmakers envisioned a college campus that would give kids raised in the "rough and tumble" neighborhoods of Boston a chance for an education, Motley said.

Caret said UMass Boston stands out among the five-campus system. It has the most diverse student body of any campus in New England, according to Caret, where students hail from 140 countries and 90 different languages are spoken on campus.

"If you want a view of the future, visit the UMass Boston campus center and you get a view of the future," said Caret, who launched his fourth annual statewide bus tour Tuesday to focus on university alumni and the roles they are playing in Massachusetts.