On Tuesday, April 16, members of the Brandeis community, including undergraduate students, graduate students, staff, faculty, translators and union members of Service Employees International Union Local 509, SEIU Local 888 and 32BJ SEIU rallied outside of the Bernstein-Marcus Administration Center. The gathering was an effort to show union unity as all three unions enter contract negotiations for current contracts expiring on June 30.

The unions represented at the University include faculty and Ph.D student teaching assistants and fellows (SEIU, Local 509); librarians and library support staff (SEIU Local 888); and Facilities staff (SEIU 32B.J). All three unions are seeking an increase in wages and expanded benefits to match the cost of living in the greater Boston area.

Rally attendees gathered as early as 15 minutes be fore the 11:30 a.m. scheduled time, with union stewards and organizers walking around with clipboards having people sign in. Many carried signs, expressing their dissatisfaction with the University's treatment of its employees.

"I helped Brandeis maintain R1 status and all I got was underpaid," read one rally sign, referencing the University's "high research activity," according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Universities with R1 classifications are evaluated by their dedication to research, financial investments in science and engineering, the number of doctoral degrees granted in diverse disciplines and a sizable research faculty.

"One of The Top 10 PhD Programs for Social Policy But...LOWEST Stipend in all of Brandeis! $21k Is Not A Living Wage Is this social justice?" another sign questioned.

These signs reflected the demands of graduate student employees for increased stipends and wages. Going into negotiations, many union members are pushing for increased wages that will better support the cost of living and reflect the work they perform.

Representing SEIU 32BJ were Maritza Ayala and Dagma Quiles, both stewards of the union and members of the facilities team at Brandeis. Ayala, who has been working in facilities for 18 years, shared her gratitude for being picked as a union steward and emphasized her determination to fight for a fair contract and respect for the workers. "All my brothers and sisters, let's fight for our rights. We won't stop. Let's fight for our rights." Ayala's chant was translated from Spanish to English.

In an interview with The Justice, Ayala shared that she has to work full-time just to make ends meet. This means working seven days a week, taking over time and any additional work to pay rent and bills and assisting her son with paying for his college tuition- all while balancing being a single mother.

"They know that we're here 100% for them - clean-ing, doing really dirty work, cleaning everything necessary to clean. They should be able to recognize that if we weren't here, Brandeis wouldn't function," Ayala told The Justice. Ayala described this workload as much heavier than when she first started at Brandeis because administration refuses to hire more custodi-ans, forcing the remaining staff to take on more work in the same amount of time for the same pay.

Similarly, in an interview with The Justice following the rally, Quiles explained that over the last two years, the University has increased the amount of work that facilities had to perform due to staff short-age. She described her work shifts being around eight hours long and pay does not increase to reflect any additional shifts that she picks up. The Justice reached out to the University for comments, but did not receive comments as of press time. 

In her speech, Quiles shared that she and her  daughter had to move from Cambridge to Lowell  because her income does not match the continuously growing cost of living. “Now I drive an hour  and a half to work here. I'm tired. We are all tired,  but I'm ready to fight so that our sacrifices are recognized,” she announced.

Both stewards received cheers and support from  the crowd as their speeches cheered the rally attendees. 

Following Ayala and Quiles’ speeches, SEIU Local 509 steward and graduate worker Sneha Gantla  addressed the rally. Gantla has been a doctoral  student at Brandeis for five and a half years, with  an annual stipend of $21,000 a year — since prior  to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the graduate  worker shared that she does not receive program  funding anymore and raised concerns about the  insufficient wage to adequately address the cost of  living in Boston and its surrounding areas.

“I think we’re all very creative at surviving on  very little,” Gantla said in an interview with The Justice. In her speech, Gantla mentioned that food  insecurity in graduate students, due to low pay  and high work demands, is common enough for  her employer to start an email list service dedicated to notifying students about free leftover food  from various University-held events. 

The SEIU Local 509 steward added that she is “almost always” working other jobs to support being  a full-time student, stating that she once worked  three part-time jobs simultaneously. “Even with  that, I made less than $28,000 for the year. Right  now, I make less than half of that because I don’t  have program funding anymore,” Gantla told The  Justice. 

Gantla’s speech emphasized the contribution of  graduate workers to the function of the institution.  “We know that Brandeis loves to advertise itself as  a university that punches above its weight when  it comes to research and scholarship and education,” she said during the rally. “But you know  why Brandeis can contribute above its weight? It's  because its grad workers punch above ours.” The graduate student worker concluded that  Brandeis’ status as an R1 institution, the pursuit  of research grants and many of the classes being  taught are because of the graduate student workers’ efforts for the University. “Brandeis works  because we do,” Gantla said. 

Also representing SEIU Local 509 was Steward  Rafael Abrahams, a History Ph.D candidate and  writing instructor at the University. “I love teaching, but loving my job doesn't pay the bill,” he said  during his speech as he echoed the sacrifices many  of the speakers and Brandeis employees make to  be a part of the Brandeis community. 

“My advisors and the History Department  [have] told me that while they appreciate my  teaching,” Abrahams said, “it's financially wise to  graduate [and] to get out of here as soon as possible  before the funding dries up.”  

Gantla and Abrahams’ attendance at the rally  demonstrated the financial struggles faced by  graduate students. Last May, The Justice investigated the financial struggles faced by Brandeis  graduate students. Many express concerns surrounding the cost of living in the Greater Boston  area and the inadequate support from Brandeis.

Showing their support was adjunct Prof. Sarah  Lupis (PSYC), representing adjuncts and SEIU 509. 

“For adjuncts like me, a union means everything,” said Lupis in a speech during the rally. “We  have raises, access to health insurance and professional development," Lupis shared the importance  of unions in ensuring the needs of workers are  addressed and as the three unions enter the new  cycle of contract negotiations, demands for more  transparency. “We have all noticed the lack of  transparency from Brandeis administration,” the  psychology adjunct professor said. “By ourselves,  we are voiceless. But our union gives us strength.”  

SEIU Local 888, which is the union that consists of library employees, was represented by Thom  Valicenti, a Public Service Coordinator who has  been working in the library since 2003. Valicenti  has been a member of the union since his start at  the library and has been a steward in four previous  contract negotiations. Drawing from his two decades at the Brandeis library, Valicenti expressed  that the University administration’s priorities  have seemed to shift to be “about the money.” He elaborated that while a budget reveals tough financial circumstances, it is also representative of  one’s values and priorities.

“[The University administration] consistently,  more and more, choose to prioritize those at the  top and not the workers,” Valicenti said in a postrally interview with The Justice. “They’re cutting  programs that aren’t making enough money, and  it’s at the expense of the reputation of the school,  it’s at the expense of our lives, and our students’ lives.” 

Alongside fairer sick leave, health insurance  and paid time off Valicenti hopes this new contract  will account for the rate of inflation. He referred  to a past contract where the union was able to negotiate two percent yearly raises for its members  when inflation was over seven percent. “We’re falling behind, we’re losing money, so we just want to  be able to at least tread water to keep up with this  economy,” he said.

What makes Valicenti want to continue to stay  at Brandeis is the community, particularly as he  works in the library’s public services; his work  allowed him to work with numerous student employees. “Over the years I have enjoyed getting to  know these students who come from all kinds of  backgrounds … and getting to know their stories  … that to me, is the most rewarding part of the job  and that's what keeps me at Brandeis,” Valicenti  said. He added that his co-workers have also been  key to fostering this community. “I've got to know  quite a few of the facilities workers, the dining services workers and they're wonderful people and  they deserve better than what they've been getting.” 

Joining union members was Mary Hurd, a  non-union employee who has been working at  Brandeis for nine and half years. During the rally,  Hurd spoke on the power that she believes unions  have in addressing the needs of employees. 

“I am here today because this is really important  to me,” said Hurd. “I believe in and have personally experienced the power of unions to improve  workers' lives.”

Hurd said that she has been a member of the  United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829, a labor union  and professional association of Designers, Artists,  Craftspeople and Department Coordinators, for 20  years. She described herself to be “luckier than  some” as she was able to buy a low-income condo  before the housing market exploded, but even  with that added advantage she said, “I struggle  to pay my bills and … can't afford extras like going out with friends, going on vacation, or having  children.” Hurd shared that last year she received  financial support from her parents and doesn’t  know when she’ll be able to pay back the money.

“My story isn’t unique,” Hurd said, “So why do  we stay? … I stay because I love the students and  because I believe in the social justice mission of the  University.” Hurd drew upon the University’s Diversity Statement, demanding that staff be a part  of these considerations for the institution to live up  to its mission of recognizing the “need to analyze  and address the ways in which social, cultural and  economic inequalities affect power and privilege  in the larger society and at Brandeis itself.” 

This rally comes just weeks after an April 9 demonstration, where a group of Brandeis University  faculty, staff and graduate students demonstrated  at the Wien Faculty Center during a scheduled  Board of Trustees meeting. The gathering was to  protest the administration's decision to delay annual staff and faculty merit increases due to budget  cuts. It was to raise awareness of the impact that  raise freezes have on non-union employees, as well  as the experiences of students employees work directly and indirectly with. 

Though the bargaining agreement process begins at different times for different unions, all  three unions have made it clear that they are a  coalition and will continue to advocate for a workplace that reflects the values it purports to uphold.

—Editor's Note: The Justice didn’t receive a statement from Brandeis Administration as of press time due to technological issues. The statement that was sent prior to press time and received at a later date is as follows:

"Brandeis always approaches negotiations with unions in good faith. The university deeply values all its students and employees and strives to offer salaries and benefits that are competitive with similar positions in higher education. We have started negotiating with our Graduate Assistant and Facilities unions and will begin negotiations shortly with the union representing our library staff. So far, negotiations have been productive and we have made progress, in concert with our union partners, in addressing and resolving issues raised by both of these unions as well as the university. We are hopeful that this tenor of productivity and collaboration will continue as we work to conclude negotiations in the coming weeks and possibly months.  

With regard to your inquiry concerning Facilities, overtime is needed for coverage on occasions when custodians are absent for longer periods of time, including scheduled vacations and leaves of absence, or when there are special projects or events. Facilities offers opportunities for overtime shifts based on seniority, in accordance with policy. We pay employees for all hours worked, including overtime hours, in accordance with state and federal laws. If you are aware of any hourly staff who do not believe that they have been paid for all their hours worked, please encourage these staff to be in contact with our Office of Human Resources so that we may address these concerns. 

I don't have any specific information about a unit systematically sharing information about available food. But it does not seem unusual that a campus office with extra food from a gathering or event would want to let students or others know to give someone the opportunity to get some free food and to reduce food waste. 

Regarding your budget question, the university, like many others, is adapting to meet a changing higher education environment and to ensure Brandeis' sustainability for decades to come. Decisions made related to the budget are carefully considered to support our key academic and student support programs."