Make a Pro-Worker Partnership: Mills Staff Union Responds to Announcement of Talks with Northeastern University

Mills Staff Unite
4 min readJun 22, 2021

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On June 17th, 2021, President Beth Hillman of Mills College shared a statement indicating Mills would “begin formal discussions to combine with Northeastern University.” This came after a shocking announcement three months earlier that the College would cease operations as a degree-granting institution in 2023, and after several years of discussions of an “enhanced partnership” with UC Berkeley. The latest announcement once again disregarded strong criticism from many stakeholders of the administration’s unilateralism and lack of transparency around institution-altering decisions. Notwithstanding our dismay at yet another unexpected and life-changing announcement, we are cautiously optimistic to hear that there may be continued opportunity for employment at Mills.

Mills staff unionized with SEIU 1021 mere days before the Covid-19 shelter-in-place went into effect. Over the past six months, the bargaining team has met with the administration twice monthly to propose and negotiate articles for our first Collective Bargaining Agreement. Ultimately, given the volatile state of the institution, the contract has focused on three main issues:

(1) Workforce retention
(2) Ample notice and severance
(3) Compensation increases

Workforce Retention

President Hillman’s announcement stated that “a significant number of Mills faculty and staff would be offered opportunities for continued employment either on the Mills campus at Northeastern University or at other Northeastern University campuses where their skills and experience would be aligned.”

The staff union put forth a proposal on January 13th, 2021 for a contract article that makes the retention of the workforce a condition of any sale, transfer, or joint venture into which the College might enter. In five months, we have received no response to this proposal. Now, plainly, in light of the news about Northeastern University, we demand full retention of the workforce, including all Mills staff, full and part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, dining workers, and other sub-contracted staff. The College cannot make plans for its real estate holdings, endowment, and other assets without providing employment tracks for all Mills workers.

Ample Notice and Severance

In the event that some workers are not retained, workers must receive ample notice and severance. The College is planning a transition; there should therefore be no surprises around staffing changes.

Whereas current policy calls for “up to” four weeks notice, the staff union has submitted a contract proposal that provides for multiple months’ advance notice prior to layoff, and robust severance packages based on years of service. Mills has been unwilling to commit to any concrete severance figures. We call on the College to immediately come to the table with real numbers to resolve this critical aspect of our contract.

Compensation Increases

Below-market wages and persistent pay equity issues are rampant at Mills. The economic package presented to the administration in May, ahead of the Board’s June budget deliberation, addresses this. If ratified as proposed, it would raise the floor for the lowest paid staff at Mills, with a minimum wage hike that would increase compensation for roughly 45% of our bargaining unit. It would provide across-the-board raises and recurring stipends to foster staff retention through the transition. It would restore the employer match to workers’ retirement contributions, canceled by the College at the beginning of lockdown.

While these priorities have been conveyed to the Board of Trustees, the President, and College Officers, the administration has yet to provide any meaningful response.

Transform Mills into a Pro-Worker Institution

Mills has imposed austerity on its workers for many years. We have seen colleagues fired without cause, departments dismantled, and historically important materials sold off for cash. Workers have suffered these hardships largely because we believe in the mission of the College, which claims the mantle of social justice.

Northeastern University boasts an endowment of $1.07 billion. Whatever form it takes, any new partnership must not perpetuate the status quo on labor conditions. It is time to transform Mills into the pro-worker institution its community wants it to be.

What does it mean to be pro-worker? It means, at a minimum, meeting the following demands:

  • Full retention of the workforce, including all Mills staff, full and part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, dining workers, and other sub-contracted staff.
  • Immediate and good-faith resolution of the staff unit CBA, including significant wage increases to compensate for years of no COLAs in an area with an extremely high-cost of living, stay pay, robust severance, and reinstatement of suspended benefits. Non-bargaining unit Mills workers must see similar wage and benefits increases.
  • Workforce expansion to reduce unsustainable workloads. Years of austerity have created skeletal departments. Individual workers are expected to do the jobs of 2–3 people. We desperately need more people to share the workload.
  • A clearly communicated timeline for the transition, and a commitment to transparency going forward. The administration’s repeated refusal to foster transparent and participatory governance has been traumatic for Mills workers, whose careers are constantly on a precipice. This must change. Additionally, representatives from staff and adjunct faculty should be involved in all committees planning a transition.

This letter represents one of many similar letters that have been issued in the last several months, some of which have garnered thousands of signatures from community members and stakeholders, and none of which appear to have had any impact on the Mills administration’s closed-door decision-making practices. If our community is to heal, this transition must not merely mean changing the name of the college on the gate at 5000 MacArthur Boulevard. It must represent opportunity, equity, and real justice for the workers who have built their lives around Mills College.

In Solidarity With All Workers,

Mills Staff Union

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Mills Staff Unite

Mills College staff formed a union with SEIU 1021. Join us to make Mills a more equitable and sustainable place for staff and the students we serve.