The University of Connecticut Graduate Employee Union (GEU) sat in on President Susan Herbst’s office hours on Tuesday to advocate for additional bargaining time, equity and gender inclusivity and protest fee increases.
Nearly 200 graduate employees, sporting GEU shirts and shouting protest chants, marched from Homer Babbidge Library to Albert Gurdon Gulley Hall, where President Susan Herbst was holding office hours.
The group planned to sit in the lobby until Herbst negotiated the terms presented by GEU President Steven Manicastri and Vice President Mary Bugbee.
“As a union we are really committed to making sure we are capable of delivering on the mission of the university,” GEU staff member Thomas Reid said. “We want to be competitive, we want to be inclusive and we want to have a workforce that is treated fairly. This sitting is something we hope is proof to the university of our commitment to those goals.”
On Tuesday, graduate students made time between classes to attend the walk-in, voicing opposition to various aspects of the contract that was negotiated on sexual harassment policies to fee increases.
“The power of a union comes from everyone coming together,” GEU member Sarah Peck said. “If graduate students are going to make demands [it’s important] that they are respected and communications and negotiations are really happening. I feel we are not asking for unreasonable things.”
Peck said that while some benefits of the union may not pertain to her directly, as a union member, she is obligated to work towards the interest of all members.
“The union has done so much for me,” Peck said. “My healthcare, for example, is super important. Last year I got cancer, so not having healthcare would have been an enormous problem for me.”
The administration needs to change their policies regarding the treatment of sexual harassment, Peck said.
“Who wants to roll back on protections of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement?” Peck said.
UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said that the university “continues to bargain in good faith” with the graduate student union and that specific sexual harassment policies and measures in the contract are “not necessary” since sexual harassment cases are are handled similarly for all employees and students.
“All members of the UConn community, including graduate assistants, can currently make such reports to the UConn Office of Institutional Equity; the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO); the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and/or the U.S. Department for Education’s Office on Civil Rights (OCR),” Reitz wrote in an email. “A common policy applicable to all is more equitable and productive.”
After entering Gulley Hall, students waited in the lobby while Manicastri and Bugbee discussed the contract with Herbst. After 45 minutes, the two came down stairs to inform the group that Herbst did not make a decision.
“So let's take a seat and have some fun,” Manicastri said.
The group then sat in the lobby for over an hour, awaiting a response. While in Gulley Hall, the students passed around oranges, apples and other snacks. Some students worked on coursework or graded papers. Others chanted “Union power” and “They say kickbacks, we say fight back.”
““There is money at the university; it’s about priorities,” Manicastri said to the assembled students. “They want to pay the administrators… They’re running the university to the ground.”
The UConn Police Department remained on the perimeters of the building at the start of the sit-in, barring entry due to fire safety and building capacity regulations. Several students who arrived later in the protest were stationed outside, chanting along with their fellow union members inside.
“We will comply with questions of safety,” Reid said. “But we plan to stay in here as long as we can.”
The crowd left the building at 3 p.m., the end of Herbst’s office hours, and marched out of the west exit of Gulley Hall. The graduate students made their way through the Wilbur Cross building before reconvening in front of Babbidge once more before dispersing.
Though Herbst did not make an official appearance before the union, Manicastri said that the group made their voice heard.
“We’re gonna keep escalating until we get what we want,” Manicastri said. “She cancelled her office hours. If a grad student did [that], it would be shameful.”
Other union members said they were frustrated with Herbst’s response.
“We made some noise, but Susan [Herbst] ignored us,” second-year linguistics graduate student Chantale Yunt said. “I think it’s embarrassing. It’s cowardly.”
If the university does not meet union demands, the sit-in is only the beginning, Manicastri said.
“The point is that the university knows what we can do, and this is just a small taste,” Manicastri said. “If they don’t offer us a fair bargain, there will be more of this. We’ll be back.”