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U.Va. employees form union, launch #ActFastUVA campaign

The union is calling on the University to move classes fully online this fall, among other goals

United Campus Workers of Virginia, who launched the campaign, is a part of the national Communications Workers of Virginia union
United Campus Workers of Virginia, who launched the campaign, is a part of the national Communications Workers of Virginia union

A new union made up of University employees has launched its inaugural campaign, #ActFastUVA, which demands that the University address student, worker and community concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice. Citing the University administration’s “lack of transparency and unclear priorities,” the campaign calls on the University to move classes fully online this fall and cancel move-in for the majority of students living on Grounds, among other initiatives. 

“Workers, students and the Charlottesville community have been left in the dark as the University’s administrators stumble through strategies which prioritize talk over action and prestige over lives,” the campaign’s website reads. “Faculty, staff, grad students and [undergraduates] have been pitted against one another as we struggle to prepare for a chaotic semester ahead.”

Crystal Luo, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and member of the union’s steering committee, said that she thinks classes will inevitably be shifted online, citing outbreaks at universities across the nation including Notre Dame, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

“We don’t want the University to make the call to move online after hundreds of people have already gotten sick,” Luo said. “We just don’t feel like that’s a price worth paying for an on-Grounds experience.”

The University plans to welcome back students living on Grounds Sept. 8 — a two-week delay that was announced in response to growing numbers of COVID-19 cases locally and nationally. On Thursday, the University announced that 58 students, faculty and staff members tested positive for COVID-19. 

Other than its most time-sensitive goal of moving classes online, the #ActFastUVA campaign has three main objectives — fighting austerity, assuring safety and emphasizing solidarity with other organizations across Grounds. The first goal — fighting austerity — calls on the University to tap into financial resources by enacting a firing freeze, compensating undergraduate student workers who have lost pay due to the University’s delayed reopening and freezing tuition, among other demands.

The campaign’s second aim is to assure safety for University faculty, staff and student workers — this includes providing personal protective equipment and adequate testing for employees, as well as reevaluating the University’s relationship with the Charlottesville Police Department and the University Police Department. 

The campaign’s third and final objective is to emphasize solidarity with other groups across Grounds, who have been advocating for similar issues since classes first went online last March. The union cites other advocacy such as the #6AsksUVA campaign’s Petition for Emergency Support for U.Va. Graduate Workers, the Black Student Alliance’s Reiteration of Historic, Yet Unmet, Demands and Young Democratic Socialists of America’s Demand a Student and Worker Response from U.Va. campaign, among others. 

“It was important that we build on the work already being done here at U.Va. rather than reinventing the wheel,” Luo said. “We want the union to help bring people and resources together.”

United Campus Workers of Virginia, who launched the campaign, is a part of the national Communications Workers of Virginia union. UCW-VA is made up of graduate student workers — who make up the bulk of the organization — undergraduate student workers, faculty and staff. The group formed over the summer thanks to growing dissatisfaction with the University administration’s “repeated sidelining of student and worker input when developing its pandemic response,” according to the union.

Luo said that although she and other employees have voiced their concerns at town halls throughout the spring and summer, she feels like their input has not been incorporated into decisions made thus far. More specifically, Luo cited the University’s choice to host both online and in-person classes this semester.

“At the end of the day, after graduate students and faculty said [that] the hybrid model is the most work-intensive model, it’s the one that’s going to ask the most of your employees — that’s the one the University went with,” Luo said.

Those frustrations led to the union forming through discussion over email and social media. 

In a press release, the union stated that through this inaugural campaign, it hopes to lay the groundwork for greater working power at the University, particularly when it is confronted with issues beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the union is not a goal-oriented campaign, Luo said that its work on behalf of employees won’t stop once it reaches this initiative’s objectives and that they intend to be around for the “long haul.”

“I think a lot about what U.Va.’s actions would have been like at the start of the pandemic if we had a strong union presence representing workers’ interests all across Grounds,” said Evan Brown, a fourth-year Ph.D. student and member of the union’s steering committee. “I want to help build that vision.”

Throughout the campaign’s launch Monday, Luo said that she noticed some hesitation among employees who were concerned about joining a union because Virginia is a right-to-work state, meaning that employees are not required to join a labor union or pay union dues as a part of their job.

“If people feel for some reason unsafe about joining the union or want to talk about retaliation, that’s what we’re here for,” Luo said. 

Wes Hester, deputy university spokesperson and director of media relations, said that the safety of every member of the community remains the University’s priority.

“The University values the input of our employee community and we have engaged stakeholders from across the University and broader communities throughout the Return to Grounds process,” Hester said.

This article has been updated with comment from the University.

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