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United Campus Workers call for health protections, fair treatment at protest

At the 'Funeral for Public Health,' members of the ASU union and students demanded vaccine, testing requirements, hazard pay and more

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A protester holds a sign resembling a tombstone with “RIP CROW’S SPINE” written on it outside Discovery Hall on the Tempe campus on Sept. 30, 2021.

Chants of "What do we want? Workplace safety. When do we want it? Now," echoed through the center of the Tempe campus Thursday as students, faculty, staff and campus workers marched in a "Funeral for Public Safety" to protest how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled at colleges in Arizona and to agitate for better treatment of Arizona workers. 

The group of about 20 marched from Old Main to Discovery Hall in the event organized by United Campus Workers of Arizona, a wall-to-wall union composed of student employees, faculty and staff who advocate against pay cuts, layoffs, health risks, contract changes and University privatization. 

UCWA members and student protesters demanded mask mandates, vaccine and testing requirements, hazard pay and alternate forms of teaching, learning and working. 

"Today we gather, not only to mourn the failure of leadership, to do what is right to protect the health and safety of the workers and students here at ASU, and the wider community that we live in, but also to celebrate just what collective power and collective action can accomplish," said Laurie Stoff, an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College

The Funeral for Public Safety featured Rep. Melody Hernandez (D-Tempe), who has worked as a paramedic throughout the pandemic. Hernandez lauded UCWA's efforts to grab the attention of the upper-levels of the ASU administration. 

"Being in a union is hard, and it's going to get harder, but that's how you know that you're making the change that needs to happen," Hernandez said. "It's going to get hard, and if it's not getting hard, you're not doing it right. You need to make sure that they hear you."

An attendee of the Funeral for Health and Safety, hosted by UCWA, holds a sign that reads “Yes! We Have A Union” as they march toward Discovery Hall on the Tempe campus on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. 

Currently, masks at ASU are required in certain indoor areas where social distancing is not possible, such as inside classrooms. 

The University strongly recommends students, faculty and staff get vaccinated, but getting a vaccine and uploading proof is not required. 

Joya Scott, a lecturer in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, listed other workplaces working to organize like UCWA. Scott said she was in attendance of the protest to recognize how "a lot of workers throughout different industries are looking around at the pandemic, looking around at what their employers have done during the pandemic and saying enough is enough, and standing up for their safety and their dignity."

A series of budget bills that would have prohibited public institutions from requiring masks, vaccines and testing was struck down by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper Monday. Cooper ruled the bills violated the Arizona constitution as the policies were not budget-related. 

READ MORE: Faculty continue requests for more COVID-related accommodations

The Arizona State Legislature appealed the ruling Tuesday, but currently, the bills are stalled. 

Cooper's ruling means there are no current legal obstacles preventing public institutions from implementing stricter COVID-19 policies, such as more expansive masking, vaccination and testing requirements. 

Although Oscar Mancinas, a graduate student in transborder studies who is a part-time organizer for UCWA, hopes ASU will implement more stringent policies, COVID-19 safety guidelines are not the only thing the union wants to see. 

"On the one hand, I recognize that there were governmental and legal obstacles in the way (of COVID-19 protections)," Mancinas said. "On the other hand, there were no governmental and legal obstacles in the way of ASU paying student workers more of a livable wage."

Although the UCWA is pleased ASU is requiring masks in spaces that do not allow for social distancing, Jenny Brian, a faculty chair and honors faculty fellow at Barrett, said there is still progress to be made. 

"We are not here just to criticize, we're here to bring together, amongst workers at the University about what kinds of solutions we want to make our workplace better," Brian said. "You don't join a union because you hate where you work, you genuinely want to make it better. You want to be a part of the meaningful change."

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