It was a little under a year into the pandemic when Julia Clouser, then a part-time employee in the Maryland Institute College of Arts’ Graduate Research Lab, traveled to Utah with her family over Christmas break.
“It was one of those COVID vacations where you rent an Airbnb house and don’t leave,” she recalled.
Clouser, who is now a graduate admissions counselor at MICA, wanted to isolate for 14 days following her trip in order to protect the lab’s other two employees and the students who picked up equipment and prints from the lab.
But, she said, the school’s human resources department told her it would be illegal for her to use her sick days to isolate. She would either have to isolate without pay for that two-week period or come into work and risk exposing others to COVID-19, if she had picked it up on the plane rides to and from Utah.
“My supervisor basically told me, ‘I completely understand, you need to pay rent. It’s completely up to you,’” Clouser said. But, wanting to keep her colleagues and MICA’s students as safe as possible, she stayed home, losing two weeks’ pay.
This incident was at the top of her mind when she was approached by leaders of the budding MICA Staff Union several months later, asking if she was interested in participating in the unionization efforts. The answer was an easy yes. (MICA’s policy has since changed, allowing employees to use sick days to isolate, according to Clouser.)
Now, around a year later, MICA’s union has won in what organizers described as a “landslide” victory of 87-16 (the National Labor Relations Board requires only a 50% vote to form a union).
Talk around unionizing has been brewing among MICA staff members for years, according to Siân Evans, an information literacy and instructional design librarian at the school and one of the union’s lead organizers. According to Evans, the staff, which includes a range of employees, from finance staff to custodians to librarians, does not have its own shared governance organization, which has made it difficult for staff members to make their voices heard in the past.
The closest they have is the Staff Empowerment Council, which represents MICA’s staff but is not technically a shared governance organization.
“You’re being asked to advocate for staff but have no actual power,” she said.
With the formation of the MICA Staff Union through SEIU Local 500, an organization that represents school, higher education and nonprofit employees in D.C. and Maryland, the staff members hope to finally enact change. The union’s top priorities include increasing opportunities for promotions and receiving higher pay — something organizers feel is overdue.
MICA hired Segal Consulting to complete a compensation study in fiscal year 2020, which recommended new, higher pay scales for staff positions. But, according to the union, not all of these pay increases have been implemented and the timeline has been unclear.
A MICA spokesperson said the college was not able to respond to a series of questions regarding the unionization effort in time for The Daily Record’s print deadline. These questions included an inquiry asking if and when it plans to implement these pay increases.
The college did send a statement via email that read, “The MICA staff community is essential in our operation and the delivery of our educational mission. Now that the eligible members have voted to form a union, we support them in their decision and look forward to working with them — and the union — to continue delivering a world-class education to our students and a strong and supportive workplace for our staff.”
MICA’s adjunct and part-time faculty already have a union through SEIU Local 500, which formed in 2014, paving the way for staff to organize.
Still, the process hasn’t been without its roadblocks. Leaders of the staff union said the college invited staff members to voluntary Zoom meetings where they claimed that the college wouldn’t have the funds to raise employees’ salaries whether they unionized or not.
MICA did not respond to questions regarding the meetings.
The union will most likely be certified within the next two weeks. After that, it will begin bargaining with the school, with top priorities being compensation, opportunities for advancement and making policies more uniform across departments.
Another union organizer, Madison Coan, assistant director of first year admissions, said she expects pushback from the administration based on the experiences of the adjunct union and the Zoom meetings the school held leading up to the union election
“(Those meetings) seemed to be a Ghost of Christmas Future,” she said. “So, we do believe that they will push back and that we will be in for more of a fight.”
On the other hand, much of the student body has been supportive of the effort.
“We had a student walk across the stage wearing a ‘support the union’ T-shirt during convocation,” Evans said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that pay scale increases had not been implemented and a timeline for their implementation had not been provided. Actually, some pay increases have occurred and a timeline is available.