It’s all about the union at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where campus staff just voted to join United Academics of Philadelphia/AFT and faculty are in the midst of bargaining their first contract. The two groups will be united under UAP, a powerful umbrella that includes members at three bargaining units (the two at UArts and one at Arcadia University) plus non-collective bargaining members across the city.
UArts Staff Union is the first group of university staff to affiliate with UAP. They join thousands of other higher education staffers who are part of the AFT, one of the biggest labor unions to represent higher education faculty and staff in the nation.
Staff at the University of the Arts are unionizing because pay is low and they have not received a cost-of-living wage increase in more than five years. There is no system for merit-based or promotional raises, and many staff have not gotten raises in as much as a decade. Part-time staff work without contracts or health insurance.
With those conditions, it’s no surprise that staff turnover is high. “I’ve seen many staff members take on more responsibility and more work without receiving any more compensation,” says Corinne Kite-Dean, a library technician. “Staff members are leaving a place they love to work in droves because they feel unseen and grossly underpaid.”
“A union will help us retain amazing staff members who are dedicated to helping our students and keeping them happy from the day they apply to UArts to the day they graduate,” says Emily Forrer, a student financial services counselor. “Staff retention is mandatory for consistency for our students and for a healthy university.”
UArts accompanists, who work one-on-one with students, are the lowest-paid collegiate accompanists in the Philadelphia area, says Daniel Espie, a vocal coach and accompanist, and like all UArts part-time staff, they work without health benefits. “UArts staff deserve better,” he says. “I think with a union we will be able to encourage the university to treat us as the creative professionals we really are,” says Charis Duke, also an accompanist and coach.
“I’ve voting yes for a staff union because there is power in numbers,” said Assistant Registrar Lakiesha Sanders during the UAP campaign. She has worked at UArts for 20 years.
“The staff at the UArts work tirelessly to serve the students, faculty, and administration,” says David Pieczkolon, UAP president. “They deserve a say in their working conditions. I hope that the university will agree to begin the bargaining process quickly, and that we’ll be able to reach an agreement in a fair and timely manner.”
While they are optimistic about gaining a voice at work, UArts staff know the road will not be easy—their faculty colleagues are negotiating against an administration backed by lawyers from Morgan Lewis, a firm notorious for its antilabor work, including against Amazon workers. The faculty union has had to file several unfair labor practice charges, which succeeded in restoring wages for full-time faculty, supplying data for the bargaining team, and rescinding policies the administration had made unilaterally with no faculty input. The fight for a fair contract continues.