“If this is trickle-down economics, it feels like we’re being trickled on,” said Earl Sweet, President of the SEIU Local 560, in his speech at Saturday’s pro-labor rally.
The rally, which took place in front of Dartmouth Hall, came at an appropriate time, as the union finds itself in difficult contract negotiations with the College. Chris Peck, Vice President of the Local 560, cited subcontracting and healthcare as the hottest issues: “We keep losing good jobs and good benefits.” The union’s situation began to worsen several years ago, when the economy plummeted and layoffs skyrocketed under the Kim administration. Members of the Local 560 say that now—at the tail end of the recession—the College continues to subcontract jobs and increase out-of-pocket healthcare expenses. According to the workers, the Administration has argued that such cuts are necessary in a time of economic hardship. However, most don’t accept these claims, given the College’s extravagance in other projects—namely, the Hanover Inn.
Saturday’s rally sought to put the spotlight on the union’s many concerns and gather support from all corners of campus. Discussing these issues were faculty, students, union members, and the keynote speaker, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Most of the speakers linked the union’s current struggles to a larger assault on workers across the nation. “The fight that you are waging is not only for your own rights,” Sen. Sanders said. “You are fighting for every American worker . . . the wealthiest people in this country have never had it so good, and that is not what this country is supposed to be about.” He then urged the audience to re-elect the President this November. Prof. Annelise Orleck also encouraged the audience to first put Obama in office—then, to hold him accountable. Karenina Rojas ’13 called for loyalty among the College Democrats, encouraging them to always stand with staff—and “not just during an election year.”
This firm, but still critical support of the Democratic Party is important to note, given current events and the gap between promise and practice. Classic “working-man,” “Joe-the-Plumber” rhetoric is not new, but a fixture in American political history. Both the left and right have used these appeals to advertise themselves as the party of average Americans. Such language enhances speeches, but it is seldom reflected in action or policy. Critics wonder: When teachers in Chicago striked, in gridlock with their Democratic mayor, where was Obama? Why the silence from the Democratic Party, the perceived ally of unions?
At Saturday’s rally, protesters asked these same questions of Dartmouth College. Will they continue to weaken the union, stay silent, or acknowledge staff as members of the Dartmouth community—both in name and in practice?
In her speech, Prof. Orleck called staff the “heart of the Dartmouth community,” and she thanked them for their hard work. Emily Sellers ’15 echoed this sentiment after the rally when she said, “it’s nice to hear from the people who work here. We don’t think about it too often.”
But Saturday’s rally seemed to plead for more than the needed thank-you. Saturday’s speakers called for activism and allyship. “The students need to continue to put pressure on the Administration. They [administrators] listen to the students,” said Peck. Rojas pledged, on behalf of Students Stand with Staff, to “be the thorn at the administration’ side,” and to stand with the Union as they negotiate. Now, the remaining question is how the Administration will choose to respond. America’s politicians have divided themselves into two camps: a culture of opposition and a culture of silence. Workers wonder if the College will follow one of these paths, or respond to the Union’s demands. Peck and others in the Local 560 are optimistic, and he hopes Carol Folt will be “a good change.” Time will tell—though until negotiations finish, one question posed by Bruce Nelson will continue to linger in the minds of staff, faculty, and students: “Is Dartmouth a community, or is Dartmouth a corporation?”
~ by Allison Puglisi