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October 6, 2022

Clark University, striking union snipe at each other as negotiations hinge on pay

Photo | Timothy Doyle Clark University, Worcester

Clark University and the union representing its graduate student workers traded barbs Wednesday over the behavior and nature of the worker strike, following a negotiating session where the main sticking point remains compensation.

The university proposed a $28,267 nine-month stipend for all doctoral students who teach and are represented by the union, based on a living wage in the Worcester area published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator, and an hourly rate of $18.12 for unionized masters students, according to a Wednesday statement from Clark.

The school also proposed a 100% health insurance subsidy for all doctoral students.

The students in the Clark University Graduate Workers United union responded via Substack demanding the pay raise go into effect from the beginning of the fall semester along with annual cost of living increases, and healthcare coverage for dependents be covered by the workers’ healthcare plan. The members of the CUGWU have been on strike since Monday.

In Clark’s statement, the university claims picketers were illegally blocking the entrance to the construction site of the school’s new Center for Media Arts, Computing, and Design. The union maintains that construction workers walked off the site in solidarity and voluntarily refused to cross the picket line.

As of Thursday morning, no union construction workers were working at the media center job site. They have been moved to other locations, said Eli Gillen, Teamsters Local 170 business agent.

Clark has claimed that progress has been made and a tentative agreement has been reached in negotiating management and union rights; appointments and work assignments; and discipline and grievance processes. 

According to the university, the sticking point is compensation and benefits.

“At this point, the primary area of disagreement is the level of stipend. This has substantial budgetary implications. The university has come forward with proposals that increase current stipends within available resources and based on competitive rates at comparable institutions,” Clark said in its statement.

Compensation is at the center of the union’s demands. Stipend increases are capped at 1.5% a year, as inflation and cost of living increases far exceed that, according to the union.

Members of CUGWU said that stipends range between $15,000 and $25,000, while the National Low Income Housing Coalition says a renter needs to make $46,480 to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Worcester.

“I have to work two Clark University jobs and an outside job to cover just my rent, not including tuition or other living necessities,” said Lester Carver, a masters student and course assistant at Clark in a Monday press release by CUGWU.

The public disagreements over compensation and the strike follow Monday’s statement by Clark saying the union went on strike far too quickly and impeded progress in the negotiations.

“We regret that the graduate students now represented by Teamsters Local 170 have opted –without providing official notice – to initiate a strike rather than focus on reaching agreement on a contract. The goal of these negotiations is to reach a mutually acceptable and realistic contract. Instead, the union’s representatives have approached the deliberations as a series of demands which are not contributing to a constructive resolution,” the statement begins.

The Clark statement went on to say that a typical collective bargaining process takes 466 days to complete, citing a 2021 Bloomberg article for reference.

Nicholas Anastasopoulos, a partner at Mirick O’Connell, who specializes in management side labor relations, but does not represent Clark, backed up that claim.

“Contract negotiations typically take up to a year and half to reach a resolution,” Anastasopoulos said.

The Clark University Graduate Workers United, officially unionized in March under the Teamsters Local 170. Anastasopoulos said it is atypical for a union to strike soon after formation.

The union responded by saying the graduate worker situation at Clark University is dire and the workers need a fast resolution to the situation.

“We have members facing daily financial and housing insecurity, and as their bargaining representatives we are not comfortable with this continued situation,” Gillen said via email. “I would suggest that the particular circumstances of this unit, in this living area, and make up, combined with the very slow process of bargaining that has been ongoing for over 6 months, has forced the Teamsters to the point we are today.”

Longer contract negotiations tend to favor employees in labor disputes, said Nafisa Tanjeem, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Worcester State University.

“Lingering contract negotiations can break the momentum of student organizing and weaken the union. So, delays in contract negotiation usually benefit the university administration – not the graduate workers,” Tanjeem said in an email.

The strike comes at a time when at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the WPI Graduate Worker Union is preparing to vote for unionization under the National Labor Relations Board. They also seek health care coverage and a living wage.

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