COLLEGE PARK – A crowd of housekeepers, landscapers, secretaries and other workers interrupted the University System of Maryland Board of Regents meeting Friday to protest a parking fee hike they say dents not just their paychecks, but their dignity.
They came prepared to demand attention. But showing up was enough.
Sometime after the crowd gathered in the parking lot, but before it reached the board meeting’s doors, regents deflected a confrontation by sending the controversial fee increase back to committee, where the workers can argue against it at a June 20 meeting.
“They wanted to keep the peace in there,” said Vincent Brown, a landscaper at the University of Maryland at College Park. “We were going to put up a fight.”
The university plans to double parking fees over the next two years to pay for new garage construction. The first hike this fall would cost staff $330, up from $220.
Brown’s paycheck, tucked in his shirt pocket as he faced off with the regents, has $11 deducted for parking each week. “I am ashamed to show it to you,” he said later. “I was gonna show it to them and say, `I know you ain’t taking any more out.'”
For the lowest-paid staff, parking would take as much as 2 percent of their salary if the increase goes though, according to the workers’ union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
But the protest is about more than money, the group said.
The newly unionized workers are testing their voice with the university. The parking fee is one of the first issues they have tried to negotiate. So far, they say, the system has refused to listen.
Union organizers say they have tried repeatedly to get on the regent’s agenda. Workers marched on University President C. D. Mote Jr.’s office. A group of housekeepers, unable to arrange a meeting, knocked on the door of one regent’s house, they said.
So Friday’s victory, while inconclusive, meant something.
About 100 workers, many on their lunch break, faced the wing-tip-and-cuff- link crowd in sweatshirts, uniforms and dusty work boots. They were mostly ignored until Leon Swain, a steamfitter in pipe services, raised his hand.
“Excuse me,” he said. “This is a public meeting. Can I be on the agenda?”
Chairman Nathan A. Chapman Jr. explained what “public meeting” actually meant.
“We’re always willing and glad to have the public attend and observe,” he said, but the group would not be allowed to discuss the fee that day.
Again and again Swain’s hand popped up, as television cameras panned the crowd.
When Chapman told the workers the decision had been delayed, they cheered and pumped their fists.
“We consider strongly the input of all the stakeholders of the university,” Chapman said later. “Their concern was a factor in why we referred the issue back to committee.”
That’s enough for now, the workers said. They know the university has to find some way to pay for the construction. They know the state recently flattened the higher education budget and that difficult choices will be made.
But they expect to be part of those decisions, for the first time.
“Don’t treat us like Third World people or third-class citizens,” Brown said. “Don’t step on the smaller people. Don’t step on us.”
Also Friday, regents considered a resolution to require universities to expel students involved in riots such as those following the University of Maryland’s recent Final Four basketball victories.
“It’s important to send out a message of zero tolerance,” said Regent Lance W. Billingsley, who introduced the resolution now under scrutiny by a committee.
Thousands flooded downtown College Park two weeks ago after the basketball games.
Police arrested 18, but charged no students, Mote said.
Regents acknowledged that students were not the only revelers, and that the College Park campus should not be singled out.
“On the other hand, one man lost an eye, a bicycle store was looted and a police officer was hit with a two-by-four,” said Regent James C. Rosapepe. “We should get away from trying to explain, excuse or dodge responsibility for it.”
– 30 – CNS-4-12-02