Jacob Jakuszeit

Jacob Jakuszeit, former chair of OU’s Classified Senate, is one of the leaders of the unionization effort on campus. He’s photographed here where he works in OU’s Alden Library. Photo by Conor Morris.

Ohio University’s classified staff successfully unionized this past Wednesday in the wake of recent university layoffs of about 200 classified employees and following several failed attempts in recent decades to formally organize.

More than 450 full-time and part-time clerical and technical employees across all OU campuses are now included in a bargaining unit represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 8, AFL-CIO.

The union’s formation provides them with the right to collectively negotiate their wages, educational benefits and health insurance, and other labor concerns with the university administration.

The organizers, however, haven’t finalized exactly what they intend to bargain for with the university, organizer Jacob Jakuszeit said.

“I would say those basic things that anyone is looking for in a job are what we would want stipulated in our contract,” he said.

Jakuszeit, who’s played a central role in the staff’s unionization efforts, said the union plans to push back against the university’s recent changes to policies that govern classified jobs and the June layoffs of dozens of classified clerical and technical positions, despite the university’s obligation to maintain status quo through the election period.

“I think the sheer behavior of the university from Nellis on down, I think people were just infuriated. They felt stepped on, used, not respected — like their work wasn’t valued. I think this is a direct result of that,” said Steve Roth, state director for organizing with AFSCME Council 8.

Roth, however, declined to say whether the union plans to take legal action against the university for the layoffs.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

Included in the classified bargaining unit are positions in administrative services, information technology, library support and records management, among others.

The new yet-to-be-named union is a separate chapter of AFSCME Council 8 than the Local 1699, which has long represented hundreds of skilled-trade classified workers at OU such as custodial and culinary employees. The university laid off 140 Local 1699 members in May, prompting several protests.

Classified staffers participated in a mail-in secret-ballot election over a two-week period in late July after a pandemic-induced delay. The ballots were counted on Aug. 5 by The State Employment Relations Board (SERB), a state agency that oversees unions and mediates labor disputes between organizers and employers.

Of the approximately 460 eligible classified voters, 256 ballots were cast in favor of representation by AFSCME Council 8, while 55 were cast against the unionization effort, according to a tally of ballots provided to The Athens NEWS. A few ballots were either void or challenged, but not enough to alter the election’s outcome which required a majority for success.

The election is likely to be certified by SERB during its September meeting if neither the bargaining unit nor the university successfully challenge the state’s handling of the election, Jakuszeit said. Both parties have 10 days following the ballot count to file an objection.

Once certified, the union will begin to negotiate a labor contract with university administrators. Public sector union contracts tend to expire after three years when both parties typically return to the bargaining table to renegotiate.

“Ohio University values all of our employees and their tremendous contributions to making us a successful institution,” University Spokesperson Jim Sabin said in a statement. “We have a long history of positive, productive relationships between management and our organized labor groups, and look forward to a similar relationship with the classified employees union.”

OU’s classified staff have long been considered for potential unionization efforts going back to at least the 1980s, according to The NEWS’ archives. The most recent effort in 1998 failed by 50 ballots, The NEWS reported at the time.

The staff began beating the drum to unionize again in September 2019, when Roth said that nearly 80 percent of the classified staff expressed interest in unionizing as it became clearer that job security at the university was more feeble than ever given its budgetary woes.

And while the classified staff is formally represented by OU’s Classified Senate, many staffers, including Jakuszeit, felt the body couldn’t adequately address their concerns because it lacks the power to enact material change. Classified Senate has remained neutral on the staff’s unionization efforts, said Jakuszeit, who is the former Classified Senate chair.

In December 2019, the classified staff penned a letter to OU President Duane Nellis requesting that the university voluntarily recognize them as a union after Roth said that an “overwhelming majority” of staffers signed cards in support of unionizing.

That request was never granted because it reportedly did not meet the minimum requirements under the Ohio Revised Code, a university spokesperson said at the time.

Michael Courtney, associate general counsel with OU, requested at the time that the classified staff’s organizing committee present a formal filing to SERB with supporting documents backing up the claims of majority support for the unionization effort.

Organizers proceeded earlier this year to file with SERB for a formal unionization election.

“We [now] have a hand in our destiny, so to speak,” Jakuszeit said of the staff’s successful unionization effort.

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