Ramblings: Virginia Tech Workers, Grad Students Form Unions; City Hosts Business Centers; Leaders Call for Gun Violence 'Ceasefire'

What are Ramblings? Ramblings are a collection of short items that have caught our attention for one reason or another

What are Ramblings? Ramblings are a collection of short items that have caught our attention for one reason or another. We’re on the lookout for tidbits related to money in politics, data, business, civic engagement or interesting events. Think you know of something that could be a Rambling? Drop us a line at editor@roanokerambler.com and we may well write about it. Happy reading!

Virginia Tech graduate students, faculty and staff rallied Tuesday outside the Graduate Life Center in Blacksburg. PHOTO COURTESY OF JACK LEFF

Roanokers among Virginia Tech unions

Virginia Tech graduate students, faculty and staff on Tuesday announced the formation of two labor unions.

Scores of Roanoke residents — including those who work or study at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC — are eligible to join the unions.

Graduate students will be represented by the Virginia Education Association and staff by the United Campus Workers and Communication Workers of America, according to a news release from organizers.

Organizers said the union bid is the culmination of three years of work. They credited that advocacy for spurring a $15 minimum wage for campus workers and raises for more than 700 graduate student workers this fall.

“Graduate students at Virginia Tech and across the country are in a really precarious position,” said Maddie Tepper, 29, a doctoral candidate who also teaches classes. (Tepper studies “the queer affective sensation of being exploited under global capitalism, so very relevant to union things.”)

Grad student stipends have not kept pace with the cost-of-living, according to organizers; this fall, the university raised minimum stipends to $2,420 per month.

“I moved to Roanoke last July because of being priced out of Blacksburg as a graduate student,” Tepper said.

Dennis Patrick Halpin, an associate professor of history at Tech, said he believes a union will give faculty a greater say in university decision-making.

“Tech pays a lot of lip service to shared governance,” said Halpin, 46, who lives in Roanoke. “Technically, we have shared governance. But if push comes to shove, if they want something to go through, they’re not looking for faculty input on it.”

Halpin, who specializes in Black working class history, also said the university lags its peers in compensation.

While the unions can pressure university leaders, there’s no obligation for Tech to bargain a contract, as is the case with traditional unions in the private sector. Virginia law bans any state agency or locality from recognizing a public sector labor union, though a 2020 allowed localities to bargain with certain local employees, such as school teachers and firefighters.

Mark Owczarski, a university spokesman, said Tech “works to offer a competitive, holistic compensation package to graduate assistants that benefits students and the university.”

A university update last month on graduate stipends states the university anticipates further increasing stipend pay.

“Even though significant progress and record investments have been made, additional work remains,” the statement said. “The university is committed to continued progress designed to improve our competitiveness for graduate student talent.”

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City leases space to business, workforce centers

Centers to help workers and small business owners will be moving soon to a downtown Roanoke property that has also been slated for a future Amtrak station.

The city will be leasing space at 1 and 7 Jefferson St. to the Small Business Development Center and the Western Virginia Workforce Development Board. Roanoke’s Homeless Assistance Team moved into the first and second floor of the three-story building in May.

The workforce board matches people seeking employment with businesses needing workers.

The small business center, one of 27 across Virginia, is moving from its home down the street at the Roanoke Regional Chamber’s offices. Last month, the city took over as a local host for the partnership, which is run in state by the U.S. Small Business Administration and George Mason University.

Five staff members at the center help small businesses in the greater Roanoke area grow.

“The size of the program, and really their desire to expand, requires a larger fiscal host, which we're able to accommodate,” City Manager Bob Cowell told City Council members at a meeting last month.

City officials have said they're waiting on Amtrak about plans for a station on the site.

Leaders call for 'ceasefire' to gun violence

City leaders this week will call for a “ceasefire” to gun violence over the next month.

“The launch will highlight an initial 30-day commitment to end gun violence and detail how every person can get involved,” said a sheriff’s office press release. “This call to action asks all community leaders, business owners, and those invested in saving our city, to stand together.”

Law enforcement, local pastors and city leaders invite the community to gather at 10 a.m. Friday at the steps of the municipal building (215 Church Ave. SW, Roanoke).

The “Cease Fire: Victory in the Valley” campaign was announced a half hour after police reported a fatal shooting in the Fairland neighborhood on Saturday — the city’s 23rd homicide this year.

Last year, Roanoke police reported 18 homicides and 12 in 2018, according to state police data.

Scott Booth, the city’s finalist to be the next police chief, went to the scene of the latest fatal shooting while on a six-hour ride along with officers, City Manager Bob Cowell told City Council on Tuesday.

The city and Booth are still negotiating a start date and other contract details, Cowell said.

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