Student leader: ETSU Labor Day protest citing ‘reckless reopening’ beginning of a process

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Small in number but representing what they deemed a large constituency, about a dozen people Monday protested what they called a “reckless reopening” to the fall semester by East Tennessee State University.

“We’re really wanting to emphasize that the workers on our campus need to receive hazard pay and that the conditions that people are working in and the students are coming back to may not be the safest possible,” ETSU senior Connor McClelland said.

The chair of ETSU’s Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter was a primary organizer of the protest, which saw participants unfurl several banners on the skybridge that crosses State of Franklin Road. Also present was Lisa Moss, a staffer in the philosophy department and local chair of ETSU’s caucus of the United Campus Workers, a labor union.

Protesters on the ETSU skybridge Monday included campus workers and students.

McClelland said he hoped for a commitment from ETSU’s administration.

“If budget cuts are going to continue to happen, which they are projected to, that they need to come from the top first and they need to make a commitment to that,” he said.

“People at risk at the bottom of the chain who don’t have as much money and don’t have that influence, we want to make sure that we’re prioritizing the most … the lowest paid, those people need to be protected first especially during times of economic crisis such as this.”

McClelland, a senior history major and Roan Scholar, said the group is seeking three main things in the short term:

  • “Chop from the top” — In the event of budget cuts, focus on the university’s highest-paid employees “instead of chopping away at the bottom;”
  • Hazard pay for workers on campus and at risk due to the nature of their jobs;
  • Transparency in terms of publicly stating what COVID-19 threshold would trigger campus closure, and a webpage “accounting for actions taken to inspect and implement passive controls”; that request also called for more transparency about “the financial reality” students and campus workers would face if there were a closure like the one that occured in the spring.

McClelland called Monday’s events the kickoff of a process. In fact, he said, neither the YDSA or UCW had directly reached out to ETSU’s administration about their primary concerns.

Senior Connor McClelland chairs ETSU’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter

“I think the administration needs to be actively reaching out and opening dialogues with the union and with students who are active in this way to make sure that … we understand what’s happening,” McClelland said.

“The communication right now really seems lacking and really the impetus is on those who are paid to do that rather than us who pay to receive it.”

News Channel 11 reached out to ETSU at 2 p.m. Monday asking for a response to the contention that administration hadn’t opened direct dialogue with workers’ representatives, or whether it was considering doing so. We hadn’t received a response at the time of initial publication of this story.

Rather than focus most on individual responsibility of students and staff to engage in the proper behaviors, McClelland said ETSU should be clearer about what it’s doing about the “passive controls” mentioned in a joint news release.

Without more transparency there, he said, any eventual closure that might occur can be traced back to individual responsibility rather than “institutional responsibility in the face of a collective disease” and thereby “spun to place blame on college students…”

Economic and health concern over vulnerable workers

UCW’s Moss said the union is concerned about essential workers on campus, many of whom are low-paid, as well as adjunct faculty who’ve been among the first to lose income.

Moss said the union surveyed essential workers and several said they were in vulnerable situations according to CDC guidelines, either because of their own health or that of family members.

Some respondents had asked supervisors if they had other options such as being assigned to different roles and that the answers had been no.

“They’re the ones cleaning up after whoever’s been around in classrooms and dorms, and they’re of course at the bottom of the (pay) scale too,” Moss said.

Lisa Moss chairs ETSU’s caucus of United Campus Workers

She said the riskiest element of the reopening in her view was the reopening of on-campus housing — even at the 60 percent occupancy level at which ETSU has capped housing.

“I think statewide we (UCW) are kind of saying this was a risky move that you knew was not going to work out well,” said Moss, who herself has been able to mostly work from home.

“I think it’s mostly the dorms. There was no need to bring them back to the dorms.”

McClelland said he believes “the bottom line” is a driving factor in many of the decisions with which he and his small band of fellow protesters are taking issue. That was part of the rationale for the largest banner hanging over the busy four-lane road, he said — one that read “Protect Workers & Students From Administrative Greed.”

Asked about the choice of words, McClelland said this:

“We feel like a lot of our employees, particuarly our adjuncts, particularly our staff have been put into either harm’s way or have lost their jobs due to the quick reopening and the prioritization of budget cuts.

“We want to make sure that those people are protected and right now it doesn’t seem like that’s happening and so that’s what we’re really referring to when we talk about that. It seems like the bottom line of the university is being prioritized over the well being of workers and faculty and staff.”

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