Newcomb Hall student workers to hold rally next Wednesday

Students canceled plans to strike due to Virginia worker laws

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Student employment opportunities at the University are currently available in areas such as event assistance for the daily operations of Newcomb Hall.

Ariana Gueranmayeh | Cavalier Daily

Student staff members at Newcomb Hall have begun to petition against the changes that have resulted from the current reorganization of Newcomb Hall. These changes — which have included hiring freezes and increased responsibilities without increased pay — are due to a budget deficit in the Office of the Dean of Students. Impacted student employees are scheduled to hold a rally at the steps of Peabody Hall May 1 to protest the changes. The rally was originally scheduled for April 26, but moved due to inclement weather.

Workers canceled their strike after it came to the protestors’ attention that under Virginia Code § 40.1-55, if any public employee in Virginia were to perform a strike, it would result in that employees termination and a year of ineligibility for public employment. 

The student workers ruled in another follow up letter, “This is, unfortunately, a sacrifice that most if not all students cannot afford to make - nor should they have to. We therefore no longer intend to strike.”

Thus the workers attempted to exploit a clause in the code that would allow them to perform a work action — a temporary action taken by employees in order for their demands to be met. 

However, if the University were to deny closure of Newcomb Service Desk on Thursday as a response to the workers’ protest, the work action would still be considered a strike which would result in termination the employment. 

Student workers first became aware of the overall changes when former Newcomb Operations Manager Kenny Roston was moved to Facilities Management abruptly in December. Despite the student workers being told that no other changes would be occurring, they soon feared that their jobs were in jeopardy as Newcomb executives began to phase out certain positions and stopped hiring new workers.  

“This has frequently resulted in employees being forced to assume the responsibilities of two,” fourth-year Engineering student Christian May said in a petition on behalf of Newcomb student workers. “As the job has gotten worse, more people have quit - as more people have quit, more and more work has been put on each employee.”

The student workers said they felt as though information about the changes were purposefully being obscured from them. As a result, May filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the emails and other files containing the truth about the restructuring. 

Following an article by The Cavalier Daily article that outlined the restructuring and student response, May wrote a letter to President Jim Ryan encompassing the sentiments of the Newcomb Hall student workers. 

The letter detailed the changes such as Roston’s change in position, the dissolution of the Building Manager role, increased responsibilities without compensation and decrease in student staffing. 

“One of the main goals of the transition is to decrease student staffing — abusing your employees to the point that they all start to quit is not the appropriate way to achieve that,” May said in the letter. “When signing up for this role, we all agreed to do so with a certain understanding of what the job would entail.”

Next, May argues that for many students, quitting their job at Newcomb Hall was not a possibility as many are low-income students who need their University job in order to afford tuition and living expenses while still being a full-time student. 

“Furthermore, it was immediately clear that every step of the transition process had been plagued by a gross misunderstanding of our needs and status as low-income students, as well as a callous disregard for how these changes would affect us — indeed, in 377 pages of documents, there is not a single demonstration of concern for how this would affect us as student employees,” May said in the letter. 

The letter concluded with a list of eight demands that included ending the hiring and promotion freeze, retaining all student employees after the changes are implemented, better communication with student workers, increased wages and a reevaluation of the methods to fix the budget deficit. 

On April 3, Newcomb Hall student employees created a petition for students to show their solidarity against the restructuring. The petition highlighted many of the same points as the letter to Ryan and urged other students to push back against practices they deemed to be unfair. At the time of publication, the petition has accumulated 375 signatures, with a goal of 500. 

Student Council passed a resolution Tuesday evening to support the Newcomb Hall student workers’ petition and the demands in the letter to President Ryan. 

On April 15, three Newcomb staff members met with Dean of Students Allen Groves to discuss the restructuring and issue their grievances. 

“We discussed the current status of the Newcomb/1515 assessment,” Groves said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I said it was likely many job titles and responsibilities will change next year and there may be fewer positions overall, as we begin to use staff in different ways consistent with new space use strategies. I also acknowledged our overall communication of these issues to student employees could have been better.”

However, Newcomb student staff members argue that the meeting was not as productive as they would have liked, and there is still much to solve. 

“Before the meeting [Newcomb staff members] all sat and brought up points we wanted to discuss,” second-year College student Jennifer Flores said. “Honestly a lot of times when we talk with higher-ups, they give us very vague answers and not a lot gets solved.”

As a result of their perceived lack of progress and discontent with the current situation at Newcomb Hall, service desk workers announced in an online letter Monday that they intended to go on strike Thursday from 7 a.m. to midnight. 

The letter of intent highlighted that they believed there was now a need to actively protest as the situation at Newcomb Hall intensified and the student workers are increasingly frustrated with the administration’s lack of response to student feedback. 

Additionally, the students listed that they would be protesting for ending the hiring freeze, compensation as a result of understaffing, transparency in University policies and changes with students, wage increases and the creation of a Human Resources department. 

In order to enforce these demands, the authors of the letter declared they would be forming a Student Workers Union “specifically aimed at improving workers' conditions here at the University, and to ultimately function as a union for student workers.”

Thursday’s strike was to be modeled off of the Day Without Immigrants protest that served to demonstrate the impact of immigrants and their supporters on the workforce. By refusing to work their shifts on Thursday, student workers hoped to demonstrate the impact of their services on the University and gain more appreciation. 

The protestors argued that striking was intended to be a method of protest that would avoid causing physical obstruction or disturbance to other proceedings of the facilities. Additionally, the protesting group had organized for volunteer Event Assistants to work in addition to scheduled workers on Friday in order to prevent a negative buildup resulting from the previous day’s strike. 

The Student Workers’ Union at U.Va. — whose mission is to improve “workers' conditions here at the University, and to ultimately function as a union for student workers” — created a Facebook post with a message encouraging students and other supporters of their cause to call and email Ryan and Groves in order to pressure them into closing Newcomb Hall Service Desk and thereby allowing the work action to occur. 

Adam Stubits, Director of Rotunda Operations and Events, issued a response to May on Tuesday that denied closure of Newcomb Hall Service Desk. 

“The University plans on operating Newcomb Service Desk on Thursday, April 25th, under a standard work schedule,” Stubits said in an email to May. “As you have noted, Virginia Code  §40.1-55 states that public employees may not engage in any form of concerted obstruction of the employing agency and such action, if taken, will terminate his or her employment.”

Due to the University’s decision to not close Newcomb Hall Service desk and a fear among some student workers that their employment would be terminated, the protesting group has decided to hold a solidarity rally May 1 in place of Thursday’s strike. 

The Newcomb Hall student workers hope the solidarity rally will create more attention for the cause and provoke higher-ups to listen to their concerns and discontent about the transitioning. 

“I hope that there is a lift of the hiring freeze,” Flores said. “U.Va. is all about self governance, but they do not let us have any input. We understand that at the end of the day it is their decision, but they don’t even give us an ear to listen.”

This article has been updated to reflect a change in date for the solidarity rally. 

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