About 100 demonstrators gathered at the College Gates on Wednesday afternoon to protest in favor of union jobs and against Ohio University’s decision to lay off 140 classified employees.
The rally, organized by the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union 1699 and the Southeast Ohio Central Labor Council, began at about 4 p.m. and soon after made its way up Court Street.
Carrie Stobart, a cook at OU, is one of the 140 employees who were laid off last month. She attended the rally with her mom, the union’s treasurer, who had helped organize it.
Union work often runs in families, Stobart said, which is a reason why the mass layoffs have been so detrimental for local workers.
“I’ve seen people whose parents and families and kids — who all work for the university — get fired,” Stobart said. “It’s an epidemic.”
Classified employees, like cooks and custodians, are often the employees most connected to the student body, Stobart said. She worked alongside students and befriended them.
“We’re the ones who clean, who feed the kids,” she said. “We see them all the time. The president may or may not see them one time in their four years.”
The layoffs also concern Stobart because OU lies in a region known for its poverty.
“Without the university, we’d be like Meigs or Vinton (counties),” she said. “There’d be nothing there. They’ve taken 140 jobs away. It’s huge. It’s gonna hurt us, the small mom-and-pop shops and small businesses. If we don’t have money, they’re gonna lose money (too).”
Two men holding an Ohio University Employees AFSCME Local 1699 banner led the rally up Court Street to the Athens County Courthouse. Demonstrators took to the courthouse steps to chant and display their signs.
Throughout the rally, demonstrators started numerous chants and cheers, including “Hell no, Nellis needs to go”; “Who are we? AFSCME! What do we want? Justice!”; and “Athens is a union town.” Drivers passing by honked and cheered at the crowd in solidarity.
The rally was also in support of the HEROES Act, Debi Chonko, local AFSCME staff representative, said. The act could provide money to the university so it could afford to slow its layoffs, Chonko said. She encouraged people to reach out to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman to express support for the act to pass.
The next union negotiation with the university is still to be announced, John Johnson, Athens regional director of AFSCME Ohio Council 8, said. The negotiation process has been long and somewhat frustrating, he said.
“I just wish there'd be some more discretion (from the university),” Johnson said. ”I know I'm always willing to open up and discuss it. But it’s felt like a blindside to us.”
All laid-off employees lost their university-job benefits, such as insurance and education, Johnson said, though they still maintain their AFSCME benefits. Their only options right now are either unemployment or finding other work.
One of Johnson’s biggest concerns is that the university will outsource labor through contractors, putting union members out of work, he said.
“We do better work than stuff not done correctly by contractors,” Johnson said.
As of right now, the university has said contractors aren’t in the plan, he said.
The rally died down around 5:30 p.m. No further upcoming rallies are planned, but there will probably be more soon, Johnson said.