Union rallies to picket at graduation


Custodian Kim Johnson helps her fellow AFSCME members make signs illustrating their financial struggles Saturday, Dec. 3. AFSCME plans to picket the Kent State graduation Dec. 17. Photo submitted by Lydia Coutré

Lydia Coutré

After 10 years of working at Rosie’s Diner, Hattie Lemons still makes less than $11 an hour.

“I am so far under the poverty level it’s a shame,” Lemons said. “And they want to go up on my insurance 3 percent? … I would cash my check and have to go to the university to pay them for me working for them.”

This is why Lemons will join fellow members of Kent State’s chapter of the America Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in informational picketing outside the university’s Dec. 17 graduation at the M.A.C. Center.

AFSCME is one of two unions that represent employees at Kent State. AFSCME represents custodial, grounds, maintenance and food service workers, while the American Association of University Professors represents professors.

AFSCME President Dave Schuckert wrote in an email to members, “professors stand ready to picket the graduation.” Emails and repeated calls to AAUP presidents weren’t returned.

Emily Vincent, director of university media relations, also declined to comment while in negotiations.

Schuckert said the group has been in negotiations since spring for its three-year contract, which ended Sept. 30. That contract will stay in place for the 377-member local until a new one is established. Schuckert said a fact-finder is trying to mediate the conflict, but the university isn’t compromising.

“(Negotiations are) just supposed to be give and take, and we’re not seeing anything coming out of their side,” Schuckert said.

In an email to AFSCME members, Schuckert wrote, “We can not afford to take a cut in pay and pay more for benefits. We don’t make enough to begin with!”

AFSCME members gathered last weekend to begin making signs in preparation for picketing. Groundskeeper Tom Kemp wrote “We support the students” on a large poster board.

“We’re not looking to get rich.” Kemp said. “I’m just looking for a good life where I’m not struggling because right now I’m struggling.”

Even with a second job, Kemp said by the time he pays his bills, he has $60 leftover. His son, Tommy Kemp, 11, sat on the floor making his own signs. One read, “My daddy needs a raise.”

“He just needs it,” Tommy said. “We have a dog, Mongo, and me and him … I think they’d (pay attention) because a kid is asking.”

Picketers will gather in the parking lot behind the library at 6 a.m. Dec. 17 to organize. Although they will focus mostly on the M.A.C. Center and the Student Center area, Schuckert said they will also have people standing on the corners of intersections leading into campus.

Schuckert said other unions, such as AFSCME Akron City Employees Local 1360, will be joining.

George Johnson, president of AFSCME City of Akron, said members will try to come join the picketing and help as much as they can.

“We’re in this fight against (unfair) treatment together,” said Johnson. “They’re an AFSCME unit just like we are, and we stand together, and we fight together.”

He said they haven’t had a raise in five years and not one that matched the inflation rate in 30 years.

“When you look at Kent State employees AFSCME members out there, it’s even worse,” Johnson said. “I know several members that used to work for Kent State that have been fortunate enough in the last few years to get a job over here in the city of Akron.”

Schuckert said employees at the University of Akron are paid about $2 an hour higher than Kent State staff.

Joe Weidner, communication director for AFSCME Council 8, said the labor movement has been ongoing for 100 years. The rejection of Senate Bill 5 in November, a bill that would have drastically limited public employees’ collective bargaining rights, mobilized many AFSCME members, he said, calling it a “wake-up call.” He’s seen a large increase in members attending meetings.

Although he doesn’t know a lot about Kent State’s situation, he said picketing is fairly standard.

“You have to get your story out,” Weidner said. “You have to speak up for yourself, and that’s what the union’s doing.”

Schuckert said he chose graduation as the best time to picket, because it will be the best time to raise awareness.

“I feel there will be a lot of parents there that have struggled through this,” he said. “They’ve took on second jobs themselves just to put their kids through college, and they’ve paid a lot of money for this. I just want them to see that we’re not the ones taking all that.”

Morale is “very bad” among the staff, which he said is undermanned and underpaid.

“I think they take us for granted,” he said. “We’re the ones that keep the university moving on a daily basis. We provide a safe, clean environment to the best of our ability.”

Schuckert said striking would be a last resort. He doesn’t want to hurt employees further.

“Our people are like one or two paychecks away from bankruptcy and there’s quite a few every year that end up having to file bankruptcy,” he said.

Lemons said what keeps her working is the relationships with students.

“I think that they really don’t understand, or they don’t appreciate the connection we have with the students,” Lemons said. “If it wasn’t for them and the fact that you have to eat, that’s what really keeps me here.”

Schuckert said he knows students worked hard for graduation and they don’t want to take that day away.

“Yet at the same time, I would hope they would see what we’re trying to do is build a better future for the other students.”

Contact Lydia Coutré at [email protected].