Controversy has gathered around the speculated removal of three union positions in the botanic gardens. Conflict between members of the Independent Maintenance and Service Employees Union of America and management erupted after the announcement that the college’s greenhouses, which include the botanic gardens, will be completely renovated and repurposed to become what Director of the Botanic Gardens and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Kristina Jones imagines will be “an amazing platform for teaching and research.”
In an interview with The Wellesley News, Tricia Diggins, a senior horticulturist and one of the union workers whose position is in question, explained her perspective on the situation, stating that the situation between the union and management has changed several times. Initially, management proposed that three union horticulturist jobs would be replaced with non-union positions. Two of these positions would require master’s degrees, and one would require a bachelor’s degree. Diggins was offered one of these non-union positions, and her two coworkers, Tony Antonucci, also a senior horticulturist, and David Sommers, assistant horticulturist, would be laid off. Diggins explained that she told management that her job should remain a union position because she “would still be doing the same union work of mowing, weeding, pruning, et cetera.”
According to Diggins, because the college was proposing layoffs, negotiations had to occur between the union and the college to see if an agreement could be reached. After three rounds of negotiations, the union backed out because the college was not able to explain who would perform the manual labor at the botanic gardens if the union positions were removed.
“The entire union body was furious and could not understand why management was giving union work to non-union replacements, so the pressure was to back out,” Diggins stated.
The current union contract allows an employee that’s been laid off to either leave their position and take severance pay or take another union position within the college for which they are qualified and remove someone with less seniority from the job. Because Sommers and Antonucci have both worked at the college for over 30 years, if they were to take the positions of people with less seniority, it could have ramifications that impact the entire union. Diggins explained that “[for] example, David with 30 years bumps a custodian with 25 and she bumps someone with 18 and on down the line until someone ends up back in food service,” Diggins stated.
Furthermore, the assurance that they would be able to retain a job at the college does not mean that Sommers and Antonucci feel any satisfaction.
“Tony has never done anything else but work in the greenhouses, and David thought he had ended up in his dream job after time in food service and custodial [positions], so they are devastated despite the safety net in the contract,” Diggins explained.
The college’s last offer would allow Diggins to keep her union position, but she has little assurance that it will actually happen because the college has a right to implement any of the plans that they proposed to the union. Therefore, the latest offer will not necessarily be the plan they choose to implement.
All three workers offered various reasons why they think the college and management have decided to eliminate and repurpose the union positions. Sommers and Antonucci feel as though the college lacks an understanding of the work that goes into maintaining the greenhouses. Antonucci commented that it seems to be a move on the part of the college and management to “try to get people with more education to manage and do the work.”
Speaking on their behalf, Diggins stated that “neither [Antonucci nor Sommers] understand why the college chose to mess up a functioning work environment and community. They are also hurt because they are participating in some of the planning for the new greenhouses and now they are not part of the future greenhouses or science center.”
Diggins thinks that management’s and the college’s actions are not inherently anti-union in nature, but that there does seem to be a divide between union workers and management.
“I don’t think this staffing change is generated from a new anti-union policy on the part of the college, but from the science center and the sentiment that the new greenhouses need a ‘professional’ staff. In the process of judging union workers and their work as dispensable, this move by the science center has made all workers on campus feel threatened, so the union is organizing in protest,” she stated.
Jones, offering her viewpoint as the director of the greenhouse, expressed regret at how the situation with the three workers has become exacerbated in the past few weeks.
“I feel really badly for the deterioration of the relationship, and I never anticipated that it would or that anyone would think that we were trying to get rid of these three people. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about ambition for what the botanic gardens can be,” she commented.
While Jones is trying to find a solution that would allow two of the union workers to remain in the botanic gardens, she explained that she also feels the need for scientists to start working in the greenhouses.
“I’ve been trying to get creative on how to add one, hopefully two scientists who can help us really take full advantage of the resources we have in the botanic gardens for research and teaching and still maintain union positions,” she explained.
Despite Jones’ assurances that no resolutions have been reached yet, students on campus have mobilized to help Diggins, Antonucci and Sommers. The Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) has sent out a petition calling for administration to not fire the workers and has organized a vigil for Sommers, whom they believe could lose his position as early as December 1. In the future, SLAP will also be releasing a video campaign showcasing all of the work that the three have done for the greenhouses.
Daniela Kreimerman ‘19, a member of SLAP, thinks that it is important to stand with union workers because there is often not enough respect for them on campus.
“They do so much, they do so unbelievably much that people who aren’t in the working class can’t even begin to understand the amount of physical, mental and emotional labor that is required to . . . work manual and physically demanding jobs like these three people are doing, and I don’t think we appreciate it enough, and I think institutionally the college isn’t appreciating it enough,” Kreimerman stated.
Natalia Marques ’19, another member of SLAP, advised students to sign SLAP’s petition and to also reach out to other members of the community to make sure that everyone is informed on the situation.
“Sign the petition, show up the vigil and tell your professors, too. If anyone knows someone important and high up in the college who can express their anger about this issue, that would be really important, too,” Marques said.
Sommers and Antonucci expressed appreciation for the support that they’ve received on campus, particularly from SLAP, and they hope that in the end, the college and management can find a solution in which everyone will be able to keep their jobs. However, the workers cannot speculate on what the outcome of the situation will be. Diggins explained that in the future, the union may return to negotiations.
“I think this needs to be resolved by management stepping back and seeing that their scorched earth approach to getting rid of the union and two longtime, much-liked employees has violated the norms of the Wellesley community. Beyond that, I can’t speculate because I would be taking a negotiating position, and we may return to negotiations,” she said.