In midst of bargaining negotiations, student activists and unionized workers await pivotal decision


George Lemons, Jr. in Kent Market II.

Mark Oprea

For several months now, Kent State has been in an ongoing collective bargaining negotiation with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees after its previous agreement expired in September. Since then, student support for AFSCME Local 153 in the form of on-campus activist groups has put pressure on the university for a response.

As of late April, that response is pending an agreement.

Campaigns to increase hourly pay and better working conditions for low-wage campus workers have been staggeringly frequent in the U.S., with dozens occurring in the last 15 years. Since the 2001 Harvard Living Wage Campaign — where students, union members and faculty of the university endured a three-month long sit-in — similar movements have been stirred.

In 2006, janitors at the University of Miami fought for unionization and fair wages via a 13-day hunger strike, resulting in pay increases and more affordable health insurance. This year, students at the University of Southern California began a campaign titled “Let’s Raise SC!” to fight for a wage increase better than the 25 cents per hour than what they were offered, and it is still ongoing.

Some campus-based campaigns are latching onto the “Fight For 15!,” a movement geared toward increasing the wages of low-income workers to $15 an hour.

A confrontation and negotiation

Many of the grievances displayed by campus workers and AFSCME members at Kent State share a similar tone as past campaigns. United Students Against Sweatshops Local 27, a Kent State student-run activist organization that supports workers’ rights, has been the often-heard voice for many AFSCME members on campus — from food service workers, to custodians, groundskeepers and mechanics — while representatives for the union continue to work for an agreement with Kent State representatives.

Previously known as CHANGE, the workers’ rights student group officially became affiliated with USAS this semester — just in time to focus its energy on its current campaign. Although the USAS mission statement covers more than campus workers’ rights, the group’s mission is clear: The university should be “for the workers.”

Brianna Foraker, one of the student leaders of USAS Local 27, said her activism for AFSCME stems from the belief that students rely on on-campus workers, from cooks to custodians. To ignore this, she said, would be disrespectful. 

“For me and a lot of students, the lack of respect of the campus workers is really personal,” Foraker said. “And that personal motivation and the idea that something is going on on campus that isn’t right — that’s what motivates us.”

Foraker helped establish the first in a line of events meant to shed awareness on any injustices. She has rallied for student backing via signs and bumper stickers, conversed with employees at AFSCME meetings, and spoke face-to-face with campus workers. She said she encountered an AFSCME member who had lost his home while working full-time on university pay and knew three others with similar stories.

Foraker led a USAS National Call-in on March 7 via FaceBook and a nationally spread email — encouraging supporters of campus workers to phone Warren directly — after mailing several letters to the university to request a sit-down discussion.

“We cannot wait until after the negotiations conclude to have this dialogue,” one undated letter from this semester read. “Our concerns are relevant now.”

None of these letters, Foraker said, received a return.

USAS members’ frustrations culminated March 11 when they confronted university President Beverly Warren in the Kent State Student Center after a Board of Trustees meeting. Foraker, along with a dozen other USAS members, dressed together in T-shirts that read “I Support My Campus Workers,” asked Warren directly about the lack of response the group has received. When Foraker asked Warren about her campus worker support, the president said she supports campus workers but cannot comment on contract negotiations.

“I would hope that we do (support the workers),” Warren told the group. “I would say that we do.”

Although many of the USAS members know that Warren is prohibited by collective bargaining law to comment on such negotiations, they still asked her to listen to their thoughts.

“We understand that she legally cannot sit down and talk to us about the negotiations,” said Rachel Mass, a sophomore English major and member of USAS who helped organize the confrontation. “But we just wanted her to meet with us and hear our concerns, hear some of the workers stories, and how we, as students, we’re perceiving the issue.”

Foraker and Mass said they had not heard a response from the university since the confrontation until Warren was interviewed by student media on April 1. The president said she couldn’t comment until after the negotiations, but that she supported the free speech rights of USAS.

“My hope is that, in the future, we could have a dialogue where I can explain that I can’t comment on this, but let’s look at wages nationally and how do we address their concerns,” Warren said in her statement about a concern for possible upcoming confrontations.

President Warren responds to fair wage criticisms from on Vimeo.

Foraker said she’s not fully satisfied with Warren’s response and that although she likes the president’s stance concerning dialogue, she and USAS still want their voices heard in the meantime.

“I understand that she has to follow protocol,” Foraker said. “But we’re not asking her to break the law. We’re simply asking her to talk to students about their concerns.”

Facts of the Past

Since the inception of labor unions, collective bargaining has been a primary method for two parties to settle disputes that qualify unfair labor practices, according to Ohio Revised Code (ORC), Section 4117. The State Employment Relations Board is the organization that ensures that such unfair practices — whether they be wage-related or a matter of unsafe environment — are settled via an agreement between two parties, the employer and the employee. This will be the fourth time, according to SERB records, that Kent State is in a collective bargaining negotiation with the union.

As written in the SERB “Unfair Labor Practices” handbook, the public employer and the bargaining representative “are required to bargain in good faith with the objective of negotiating a written agreement.” This agreement will then be like law: It will dictate everything previously in dispute, from hourly wages to vacation time to medical pay. SERB is sort of the mediator that guides the two parties to a written agreement and is encouraged to monitor the process throughout its entirety.

If the two parties cannot come to an agreement on their own, one of the parties is allowed to hire a “fact-finder,” which can be one or more persons who monitor both sides to present an objective view, according to Ohio law. Under SERB fact-finding criteria, a fact-finder may take in consideration any past collectively bargained agreement, the interest of the public employees, and the public employer’s “to finance and administer the issues proposed.”

“(He/she) will look at comparable salaries for comparable work for employees in the labor market,” said Donald Collins, General Counsel of SERB, in an email interview. “That may be local or it may be state wide. Depending on the job under consideration, that could mean looking at neighboring university employers.”

Kent State representatives did not comment on the state of the fact-finding process. However, David Schuckert, president of AFSCME Local 153, said that the current fact-finder found a 2 percent pay increase next year with no retroactive pay (pay given to compensate for low wages in the past) was appropriate.

Schuckert said on Monday, the fact-finder aimed for a “last ditch effort” of the fact-finding process to propose a fairer agreement. AFSCME, he said, will then vote to decide whether they accept the results when they are released May 29.

Robert Thompson, regional director of AFSCME Ohio, and Joe Weidner, communications director of AFSCME, said they have some faith that there will be equity in the results.

“Hopefully we’ll find out the issue of whether these workers are being properly compensated or not,” Thompson said.

Collins said also that there is no requirement for either party — not just the employer — to comment on the status of the collective process.

“The only parties are the employer and the union,” he said.

A 2011 negotiation between AFSCME Local 153 and Kent State, assisted by SERB fact-finder Robert Stein, consisted of a 2-percent annual wage increase for workers, a “modest increase,” Stein wrote in his fact-finding report, justified by “the rising costs of food and gasoline alone” as “in order to maintain purchasing power.”

The final collective bargaining written document, effective October 2011, increased, among all AFSCME members, the six-month pay rate of a full-time Food Service Worker I from $11.09 per hour in 2011 to $11.55 per hour in 2013; $11.59 to $12.07 for a Custodial Worker; and $12.82 to $13.35 for a Groundskeeper. But before the agreement was released, the then-377 member AFSCME coalition picketed in the December 2011 Kent State graduation ceremony.

It was a “last resort” move at the time, Schuckert said in an article with the Daily Kent Stater.

Those negotiations were settled the following year, with effects in place until its expiration last September. Both AFSCME and Kent State had the ability to extend the contract for up to a year after its end date, according to its Termination Policy, but AFSCME decided not to. This spring, the collective bargaining process began once again.

A Fight For Fairness

Both USAS and AFSCME cite living wages and fair worker compensation as a central rallying cry for the pending agreement for what both sides decide to be “fair” or “livable.”

A listing last fall for Kent campus employment included openings for an AFSCME Baker on a six-month contract for $12.51 to $13.08 an hour; a six-month AFSCME Custodian for $11.55 to $12.07, the same for one on a 12-month contract.

Today, a full-time Food Service Worker I, like George Lemons, Jr., makes $11.70 an hour, which amounted to about $24,600 in 2014. In comparison, a Custodial Worker made an average of $25,000, a Delivery Worker about $27,000, according to data gathered by The Kent Stater in November 2014. Warren makes about $450,000 annually.

A 2013 report by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, an organization fighting for the low-income workers’ rights, determined the livable salary for a single adult in Portage County was $9.34. It jumps to almost $18 or more when a child is added to the equation.

Yet, each worker has individual complaints.

Lemons, 55, who has worked as a food service worker in Dining Services for 13 years, said his current wage is “livable” but doesn’t account for variables. He said he has to make up missing a few days of work, the cost of traveling expenses and medical emergencies through overtime or side projects. As far as summertime income goes, Lemons runs his own landscaping business.

“I’m living alright now,” Lemons said, sitting in the cafeteria of the Kent Market where he works full-time. “But sometimes something happens, and there’s a hardship. And once you fall behind, with our wages, it’s hard to get back to where you were at.”

Joining the Navy right out of high school in Sandusky, Lemons spent the next eight years stationed in Japan as a cook in a Navy hospital. After meeting his wife, Lemons moved back to Northeast Ohio to raise his children and find work. Lemmons got a job as a cook at Kent State in 2002 based on, he said, the motivation to send his kids to college “for free” (as all Kent State employees get family tuition waived). One of his boys, George Lemons III, graduated in 2011 with a degree in justice studies. The year before, Lemons’ base annual pay was about $22,500.

Now “the only person in his house making money,” Lemons, who lives in Portage County, said that he hopes the current negotiations turn out in favor for low-wage workers who can benefit from a higher percent wage increase than gained via previous collective bargaining. Agreeing with USAS representatives Foraker and Mass, Lemons said a 2-percent annual increase for AFSCME members won’t cut it — especially for him.

Although Lemons converses regularly with fellow AFSCME members about his and others’ “financial conditions,” he said that these same co-workers, along with the students he serves, compensate for its shortcomings.

“None of us can really argue about the actual jobs we’ve got,” Lemons said. “For me, I’m grateful to have a job. Too many people out there don’t have a job, or can’t find one.”

Preparing to Picket

With intention to stave off protests during Warren’s Inauguration Week, Kent State filed a restraining order on April 22, which restricted any AFSCME member or anyone affiliated with their cause to engage in mass picketing within 200-300 feet of the campus.

University Spokesman Eric Mansfield said April 28 that the order was filed to ensure that the upcoming graduation events “are not interrupted in a way that would detract from the events’ significance or diminish their meaning.”

“The university believes the court struck a fair balance between protecting the free speech rights of those wishing to picket while assuring the safety and well-being of those attending these significant events,” Mansfield’s statement read.

With the recent court order in mind, 10 members of USAS intended to stage a seven-hour sit-in with “I Support AFSCME” banners at their sides, along with another letter for Warren, in her office lobby on the second floor of the University Library. Claire Bobel, USAS member who was present at the sit-in, said the group was escorted peacefully out of the library around 5 p.m. without an official meeting.

The following day, USAS tried again, this time at the Center for Undergraduate Excellence opening dedication ceremony. As Warren began to speak, Bobel and USAS members Grace Goodluck and John Hess, who is a columnist for The Kent Stater, stepped in front of the audience with a ribbon that read “Student Voices,” which they intended to cut in two. All three were ordered out of the room immediately.

“As an organization of students, it’s appalling that the university would be so afraid about ruining their image with things that they’re not doing right,” Bobel said. “It’s scary and pathetic a little bit.”

Schuckert said that Local 153 is extremely angry about the restraining order and admires and praises what USAS members have done to support AFSCME and hopes that they stay even stronger in the near future. Schuckert said that if the negotiations prove to be unsatisfactory by the end of May, AFSCME members will be forced to strike.

“We have no choice,” he said. “We can’t continue to take pay cuts.”

Foraker said she and USAS are ready at the mark.

“Whatever the workers plan to do,” she said, “the students will be there in solidarity.”

Kaitlynn LeBeau contributed reporting to this story.

Contact Mark Oprea at [email protected].

(Editor’s note: the preceding paragraph has been edited to clarify the original intent of Brianna Foraker.)