Usually deserted during class, the University of Vermont’s Waterman Building courtyard was packed Thursday afternoon with about 150 members of the staff union and their supporters rallying for equitable pay and better working conditions at the university.

Seven months into contract negotiations, union members held up signs and chanted slogans at the university’s administrative building demanding pay equity, a livable wage and better work-life balance — all among their bargaining priorities.

“Yesterday, (the administration) responded to our wage proposal, and it was a really shameful and disappointing response,” Rachel Wallace-Brodeur, a research specialist at the university, told VTDigger.

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According to Ellen Kaye, who works in the university’s library system, staff were motivated to unionize by a perception that pay raises and promotions were being doled out inconsistently. Kaye is a leader of UVM Staff United, which represents clerical, technical and specialized workers and professionals at the university.

Many employees cannot afford to live in Burlington, she said, and frequently have to work multiple jobs and live with extended family or, at times, in friends’ basements. Out of the 1,350 union members, about 37% make under $20 an hour, Kaye said.

In a written statement, university spokesperson Enrique Corredera said that management continued to negotiate in good faith with the union.

“UVMSU and UVM agreed through ground rules that our negotiations should be private,” he said. “We respect that agreement, and will not comment on the details of negotiations at this time.”

Exempt employees voted to unionize in May after a yearlong organizing drive.

Although the union did not comment on the details, several members decried the negotiations in comments and in speeches. Some suggested that university leaders overlooked their contributions — as compared with those of administrators and professors — despite the irreplaceable nature of their work.

“You are the foundation of UVM,” said Deb Noel, a professor and a member of United Academics, the faculty union, in a speech to the staff.

Following up by email later, Noel wrote, “Staff keep the university running. They make it possible for faculty to teach and do research, for students to live and learn on our campus.”

Kaye, who has worked at the university since 2019, said she has only received one pay raise of $630. Staff wages are lower at UVM than at comparable universities, she said. This has led to high turnover, which has only added to the workload of those who have stayed, she said.

“We know that we can’t afford for this to go on a long time,” Kaye said, “ because we are seeing staff leave every day, because wages are stagnated, because morale is low, because we are understaffed.”

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