Workers United: ‘Historical and Unprecedented’ Campus Union Coalition

PTFA, USFFA, and OPEIU join together in solidarity between the University Center and Lo Schiavo. PHOTO BY MEGAN ROBERTSON/SF FOGHORN

Union shirts in blue hues read: “Bring it on.” Students and faculty discussed the importance of workers over coffee and donuts. Local activists celebrated their prior wins and looked towards the future. 

Nestled in the walkway between the University Center and the Lo Schiavo Science Center, the most prominent USF unions spent the last two days of August tabling together to publicly debut the multi-union “Workers United” coalition. This collection of unions consists of the Part-Time Faculty Association (PTFA), the Union of the Full-Time Faculty (USFFA), and the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), representing all program assistants. 

While these three unions were tabling in person, United Service Workers West, the union for laborers and gardeners, and UNITE HERE Local 2, the union for USF food workers, were absent from the tabling process but are both members of the coalition. 

“The amount of unity on campus with all of the unions is absolutely historical and unprecedented,” said Nat Naylor, director of representation for OPEIU Local 29. 

Workers United began during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. “People of various workers groups and unions got together to discuss safety concerns, and to share those needs with management,” said Michael Hammond, the president of PTFA. “It has endured as a space in which workers unions can get together and share our experiences, support one another, and strategize how we maneuver labor life here at USF.”

Since their foundation, the coalition has had a number of administrative ‘wins,’ such as petitioning the SF Board of Supervisors to close an SF medical reimbursement loophole, overturning a policy that resulted in healthcare payments for commuter workers, according to their press release. Further successes for the group include causing USF to reinstate seven full-time residence directors in order for them to maintain their benefits and winning the battle for reimbursement of internet costs during online learning. 

August’s event marks the first instance the coalition advocated for themselves in person. “We’ve been conducting meetings over Zoom for a couple of years now and it’s created this wonderful space,” Hammond said. “But to be together in solidarity, literally side by side, has been really special.”

Jill Schepmann of PTFA said that community is the key to this coalition “A lot of new relationships in our community were formed, with ourselves, OPIEU, and other faculty,” she said. “We just found each other in this way that is forged in fire, I guess.” 

For Robert Boller, a rhetoric professor at USF, who was recently moved from part to full time faculty, Workers United was the answer to a big problem he saw in campus life. 

“I’ve been here so long, I know the chief of police, the gardeners, the librarians, the program assistants; I know people in lots of different organizations on campus, and I want to see the university thrive,” Boller said. “So, making sure that there are really good working conditions that are in alignment with what the University espouses is really important to me.” 

In the past, University administration has received scrutiny for what some consider to be hypocritical behavior. In Feb. the Foghorn reported that PTFA filed unfair labor charges against the USF administration with the National Labor Relations Board. 

Entering a new season of bargaining this fall, USF administration is looking ahead. “We work hard in the administration to negotiate quality labor contracts with each of the individual unions at USF,” said Assistant Vice President of Labor and Employee Relations David Philpott. “The University reached a fair agreement with the PTFA last spring, and our adjuncts continue to have one of the richest total compensation packages of any of the schools on the west coast, if not the country.”  

Hammond said that the coalition is “ happy with the contract we got,” and that “no contract will ever be perfect, but we got a lot of the things that we wanted out of that.” 

As PTFA shifts focus following their successful contract, they are striving to give back to their community. “For Workers United, I’m really excited for [PTFA] to play a different role,” Hammond said. “Last year we were the recipients of so much love and support from various unions as we had our events. This year, we’re paying it forward. We’re going to be there for them.” 

Sheppman added his thoughts for the future of the coalition. “Let’s talk about what we’re doing in our classrooms, let’s create ways to get to know each other, so the next time this comes around we are more aware. A big goal of ours is to make sure our BIPOC faculty knows that they have a home here. We’re making sure that all of our voices are being heard and that everyone feels they have a space here.” 

OPEIU and United Service Workers West both enter bargaining with the University this semester. Being that OPEIU members last got a wage increase in June of 2021, according to Naylor, the next phase of their union’s advocacy is going to be for a wage increase due to rising inflation.   “I just hope that if we do need to engage in any collective action, that other unions and students will come out and support us,” Naylor said. 

“We are proud of the rich history of unions on the Hilltop and respect the coalition of on-campus unions,” Philpott said. “The University looks forward to working with the OPEIU Local 29 bargaining team to reach an agreement in the best interest of all parties.”

Workers United’s focus is to shine a light on these two unions as they enter bargaining. “I think a lot of our students barely know about these two groups of workers,” Hammond said. “They pass by them, see them do their job, but they barely get to interact with them, the way you would with faculty. The ALPPL [Associated Law Professors & Professional Librarians], are also negotiating right now.

“We want to show up for them, because they are essential workers who need wages that are fair for them, they need working conditions that afford them safety and respect, and I hope they can get that without having to scratch and claw and fight for it,” Hammond said.

“This is community building,” Boller said. “This is a reimagining of the different working groups on campus, seeing how we can work together to support the University’s mission.” 

Readers can follow @usfcasolidarity on Instagram for latest union updates. The Foghorn will continue its coverage throughout the year of OPEIU, United Service Workers West, and the ALPPL’s bargaining with the University. 

This story was updated on September 23, 2022 to accurately reflect prior negotiations between the USF Administration and PTFA. 

Megan Robertson is the Foghorn’s news editor and a third-year media studies and performing arts and social justice double major. She covers breaking campus news and can be reached at mrrobertson2@dons.usfca.edu

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