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UGA Union Workers Criticize Football Games

Amelia Wheeler speaks at a UCWGA protest Oct. 9 at the Arch. Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Before Georgia’s home game against Tennessee, the University of Georgia chapter of the United Campus Workers of Georgia called for the administration to take further action to curb the spread of COVID-19, both inside and outside Sanford Stadium.

The union organized a protest at the Arch on Friday, Oct. 9, where a gathering of about 20 members criticized the university’s decision to allow football fans in the stadium and its response to unmasked fans at the first home game against Auburn. Amelia Wheeler, event coordinator for the union and a doctoral student at UGA, said the university needs to stop blaming students and take accountability.

“UGA’s response to this recent criticism about football games has been a real trip,” Wheeler said. “They’ve abdicated their institutional responsibility by blaming individual students as a few bad apples, a dangerous 1 percent. That doesn’t surprise me. On this campus, football isn’t the only game that’s being played, y’all.” Wheeler said UGA needs to stop blaming students and trying to please the “bow-tie donors cocooned in their boxes” at home football games.

Mathematics professor Joe Fu—known for setting fire to a memo that told faculty not to disclose if one of their students tests positive for COVID-19—shared some of the union’s demands for the university. They include increasing data transparency, designing a “clean” plan for quarantine and isolation, establishing a clear threshold of positive cases which would warrant closing campus, allowing all UGA instructors to teach remotely, guaranteeing paid leave for any university employee who tests positive, ensuring pay for all workers should campus shut down, and—if their responsibilities don’t require them to be on campus—letting employees work from home.

If campus were to close, Wheeler said administration should lower the salaries of upper administration, or “chop from the top,” to come up with the money to pay all university employees. “This is the time for us, as community members and workers, to stand together,” Wheeler said. “If I’ve learned anything through these last few months, it’s that the powers that be do not have our best interests at heart. The only way that those interests are going to be served is if we have them served ourselves by standing together.”

Bryant Barnes, a union member and UGA doctoral student, impersonated upper administration, fielding questions from protesters and giving answers with little substance. His impersonation was an amalgamation of UGA President Jere Morehead, Vice President of Student Affairs Victor Wilson and University Health Center Executive Director Garth Russo, Barnes said.

“We’re setting the larger community up for disaster,” Barnes said. “It shows how UGA feels and sees itself in relation to the Athens community. UGA is in a wishful land, where if they just say everything is fine, it’ll happen. But that’s not the case.”

Barnes said he thinks football should be televised without fans in the stadium, while ensuring sports teams take COVID-19 precautions. “When testing is inadequate, when the amount of folks getting tests is going down, we don’t need to bring in 20,000-plus people every couple of weeks and have them disperse throughout the state,” Barnes said. “The vast majority of the capacity of the stadium is not there. They’re watching the game from home, so why can’t we ask the full 100 percent of fans to do that?”

Shortly after UGA’s campus reopened, Athens resident and former UGA employee Carrie Bishop reached out to the union and got involved to protest the university’s COVID-19 response. “Athens was doing a lot better as a community to stop the spread of COVID-19 before UGA reopened,” said Bishop, who has a child in the Clarke County school system. “We can attribute it to the decisions UGA made and how it brought the students back. Clarke County has been virtual since the beginning of the school year, but it’s contingent on how the cases go. What’s it going to be like two weeks from now after the football games? It’s impossible to separate UGA and the decisions the community is having to make.”

A pedestrian on the opposite side of Broad Street mockingly shouted “Where is your mask? You’re killing people!” while Wheeler spoke into the megaphone with her mask down. “We’ve had some hecklers tonight, but that doesn’t even concern me,” Wheeler said. “I want to share one of my favorite quotes with you. It says, ‘First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.’ Do you know who said that, y’all? It was Gandhi. Guess what? We’re two-thirds of the way there by his steps, so we’re doing pretty good if they’re laughing at us.”