By SARAH ROBERTSON
AMHERST – Unionized employees of the University of Massachusetts Amherst development office held a rally on campus Monday against a plan to move over 100 jobs to a private, non-unionized foundation. While university officials say they intend to transfer control of the fundraising and marketing staff to the UMass Amherst Foundation to comply with state retirement board regulations, union members dispute that the move is necessary.
“I guarantee you this will not benefit the taxpayers of Massachusetts one penny,” said Gail Gunn, a UMass employee of 25 years and a member of the Professional Staff Union (PSU). “It’s only being done to curb state regulations so that they don’t have to play by the state’s rules anymore.”
Monday’s rally was held in support of the PSU and the University Staff Association, the two unions that represent staff of the university’s Advancement office.
According to state law, employees of a public college cannot spend more than 25% of their working hours on projects related to an affiliated private foundation, a regulation enforced by the Massachusetts State Retirement Board (MSRB). University officials claim that most Advancement employees’ work exceeds this limit, and that all the jobs in the office should therefore be transferred to the Foundation.
The unions, meanwhile, estimate that fewer than 10% of their members are out of compliance, and say management is refusing to return to the bargaining table to find another solution.
“Administration was saying to our employees, and to us, from the very beginning that because of mistakes that they had made about the way that Advancement was structured, our members’ past pension contributions that were already made are at risk of being lost,” PSU co-chair Andrew Gorry told The Shoestring. “Their solution would be to privatize our members’ positions while taking them out of the pension system, and asking the MSRB for forgiveness.”
In November, Advancement office employees received a notice from UMass administrators claiming the university had become aware of an oversight that put their eligibility to collect their state pensions at risk.
“[T]his process is solely driven by legal and regulatory compliance requirements,” UMass Amherst spokesperson Edward Blaguszewski told The Shoestring. “The University became aware of the issue as a result of another pension matter and immediately began a review to determine whether UMass employees would be impacted.”
Negotiations over the issue began in January, but stalled in mid-February after the unions challenged the claim that most Advancement employees were doing too much work for the Foundation. That’s when management “walked away from the table,” according to Gorry.
“Our members would tell us over and over again, ‘I know what I do at work all day, and what the administration is saying, and that isn’t true,’” Gorry said. “A few members did say they were doing more than 25% of their work for the Foundation, and their positions maybe should move over.”
On February 18, vice chancellor for Advancement Arwen Duffy sent an email announcing that the plan to move all fundraising positions to the Foundation would proceed. Duffy also serves as executive director of the Foundation.
“Our greatest concern – ensuring your past and future retirement contributions are not put at risk – has been the driving factor throughout this process,” Duffy wrote, adding that the university and unions had been “unable to reach an agreement.”
The unions dispute that most of their members’ pension contributions were ever at risk. “The MSRB, to my knowledge, has never represented that they would do that,” Gorry said of the threat that benefits could be lost.
Last week the unions filed charges with the state Department of Labor Relations for bargaining in bad faith, retaliation, and anti-union activity related to the restructuring plan.
Around 100 people, most of them students or university employees, attended the rally outside the Whitmore administration building on Monday afternoon. They called on university leaders to return to the bargaining table.
“I and so many of our colleagues have been incredibly stressed. There are so many things that could happen to us that could affect our lives negatively,” said Krista Navin, a UMass employee and PSU member for almost 10 years. “We could be forced to work for an at-will private employer, we could be forced to change jobs if we want to stay on campus, or we could lose our jobs entirely. We’ve been living under months of uncertainty.”
Duffy’s February 18 email said the university would “schedule meetings with every impacted employee to discuss their options,” including transfer to the Foundation or “pathways to remain at the University.”
Kim Fill, a UMass employee of 28 years currently working as assistant director of donor relations for the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and a PSU member, said the plan was an attempt to remove the university’s fundraising arm from public oversight.
“Stop threatening the livelihoods of our members and our families to carry out your privatization scheme,” Fill said. “Who’s to say that leadership won’t stop at Advancement? Who else might they try to privatize next? That is a threat to workers and community members everywhere.”
Amherst resident Max Page, a lecturer at UMass and the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, described other plans to privatize education, including the opening of a new charter school in Worcester and a proposal to sell the entire Bunker Hill Community College campus to a private developer.
“And here they are at UMass Amherst, trying to get rid of 100 employees – some of you we heard from today – kick them off from being unionized, publicly-funded employees. That stinks, and we won’t stand for it,” Page said. “We’re going to prevent this privatization scheme from happening.”
Jeff Jones, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 and vice-president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said he had attended graduate school at UMass Amherst in the 1980s.
“UMass was doing silly dumb things then, and now they’re doing silly dumb things again,” Jones said. “This is union busting, folks. There’s just no way around it.”
Blaguszewski did not answer follow-up questions sent by The Shoestring, declining to respond to claims that the shift to privatization is a “union-busting” move.
The Massachusetts Daily Collegian reported that the university has tried a shift towards privatization like this before. In 2019, the university illegally moved around one dozen state employee jobs to the UMass Amherst Foundation. After the PSU filed an unfair labor practices complaint, the state jobs were reinstated.
No Paper Trail
Established in 2003, the stated goal of the Foundation is to support private fundraising for the campus’s faculty, students, and facilities. Gorry told The Shoestring its main function has been to handle large donations.
“[UMass Amherst Foundation] provides a bridge between donors and the schools, programs, faculty, and students that make up the university,” the nonprofit’s website states. “We help to match caring people with meaningful opportunities that support both UMass Amherst’s mission and the personal objectives of our donors.”
The Foundation’s board of directors includes leaders of various banks, financial service agencies, medical companies, universities, and law offices, and one heir to a professional horse-racing dynasty. Almost all are UMass alumni. Patricia A. Parcellin, the former head of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, chairs the board, and UMass vice chancellor Andrew Mangels serves as treasurer.
The Foundation’s operating budget for the 2021 fiscal year was $4.4 million, when it reported having 29 employees. It raises tens of millions of dollars each year in donations. Union members at Monday’s rally voiced suspicion that the university was using the state regulation, and the alleged threat of lost pension contributions, as a pretext for expanding the Foundation.
“We are stunned by what we have seen by our employer,” Leslie Marsland, president of the University Staff Association, said in a written statement. “Our members have been given false
and misleading information, making them think that their state retirement benefits were in jeopardy unless their jobs could be transferred from the university to a private employer.”
Andrew Napolitano, the deputy communications director for the Office of the State Treasurer and Receiver General, told The Shoestring that he could not say whether the university had approached the MSRB about the compliance issues, or whether the MSRB had discovered the issue and reached out to the university first.
On February 20, a lawyer for UMass Amherst and the Foundation submitted an outline of the proposed changes to the MSRB, but according to Gorry, prior to this UMass officials had apparently communicated with the MSRB almost exclusively by telephone.
The unions obtained copies of all email exchanges between the university and the MSRB using state public records law. “They left no paper trail,” Gorry said. “Those emails reference they had been talking for quite some time about these issues… They were deliberate about keeping as much of their conversation with MSRB on the phone as possible so it couldn’t be discovered.”
Blaguszewski declined to comment on the university’s reliance on phone calls in communication with the MSRB. He insisted in communications to The Shoestring that the restructuring plan is moving forward.
The MSRB declined to comment on the situation at UMass as it is currently under review, but will discuss the issue further at its next scheduled meeting on March 30, which is open to the public.
“I do not know who benefits from this privatization scheme,” Gorry said. “It’s not UMass students, parents, taxpayers, or employees. The whole thing is a mess.”
A version of this article was published in the Montague Reporter. Photo courtesy of the author.
Sarah Robertson is an independent journalist living in western Mass.
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