An Interview with Susan Russell from Novack

Susan Russell works the counter Monday through Friday at Novack Café. She is Secretary-Treasurer of local 560, the union that represents 440 of the college’s employees. She is also a member of Students Stand with Staff and The People’s Coalition. I did an extensive interview with her about her life and about working at Dartmouth. Read the excerpt below.

Tell me about yourself. Where are you from?
I was born in Manchester, New Hampshire. I’ve lived all over New England. My father was in retail for thirty-five years. They moved managers around a lot so we ended up in Maine, New York, and then back to New Hampshire. As a kid I was a competitive baton twirler. I became state champion and went to nationals. I was sixteen, flew out by myself to Indiana. In high school I volunteered for three years teaching elementary kids baton twirling for school parades. I led the bands as the big “majorette.” I still keep in touch with my twirling coach.

What did your mother do?
My mom didn’t work until we were in first grade, my sister and I. She quit high school during the war and dint’ get her degree until her mid-forties. She got a master’s degree in special ed. She worked at bank while we were growing up. During that time my father paid the bills and her money paid for baton lessons and things like that. We never went without anything which was fortunate.

What were your family like?
Both my parents were alcoholics. Eight years before she died my mother became sober. She had a heart of gold. She’d do anything for you. Last couple years I moved her up to a home five minutes away from me in Bradford, VT. She was so happy there. She had dementia towards the tail end. Some of the family, when she was sober, wouldn’t let her go to family events, it broke my heart because you know, people change. She was kind and generous, spoiled us rotten. She would take the shirt off her back for you. I had a younger sister Janey who did in ‘91 in a car crash. She never wore a seat belt so she got thrown out of the car. We were best friends. Her daughters and I we’re really close. Rough time. I wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t me. My little niece’s name is Emma Jane, I call her Emma Jane cause my sister’s name was Jane. I’m the only one who calls her Emma Jane and I do it out of respect for my sister. I never had kids. I had a miscarriage when I was 38. Some of the boyfriends I dated, you’re glad it didn’t happen.

What did you do after high school?
I went to Burdette School because I didn’t want to go to a four year school. At the time my first husband was going to BU. I liked the concentrated course for a year. It gave me a good background so I could get a decent job. I started as a bookkeeper and worked my way up to office manager.

First husband?
I married my high school sweetheart. Mistake. He graduated from BU and went on to get a master’s in religion. I put him through that cause I was working and he wasn’t, and then we separated and got divorced. He was very intelligent but lacked self-confidence and always wanted to keep up with the Jonses. Big spender. He eventually committed suicide about thirteen years ago. His second marriage ended, his wife was leaving him for all the same reasons I left him. I wasn’t surprised. Suicide to me is not suicide because it’s what you want in the end. He had all these plans but he was smart enough to know when to call people, so it was all over by the time they had reached him.

What did you do after that?
I moved to New Hampshire. I moved back home for a while in Bristol and worked as a waitress, got out of management altogether for a couple years. Then I went to work for Pizza Hut and they put me in a management training program. They promoted me from assistant to run the West Lebanon store. That year the top three stores in New England were run by women. I went to Witchita where the corporate headquarters are located, they gave anyone who made a million dollars or more a ring, like a class ring. So I got one. That was back in the beginning of the nineties. That was a lot of work. I remember one night on Christmas Eve, I had to go in to do an inventory. I ended up in Lebanon and met my second husband, who works concessions for dining services. We’re cordial to each other it’s no big deal.

Second husband?
Yeah, as his mother said to me, ‘you must like change’. My mom said before she died, ‘You know Susan, I don’t think you should ever get married again. That’s not something you’re good at.’ Dave Durkey, I met him when I first started at late night. My current husband. I’m on number three.

How did you come to work at Dartmouth?
I had applied to the college but all they had was temp positions but I wanted a benefit position. One of the reasons I came to work for the college was the free health insurance as a single payer and the retirement plan. The old retirement plan, but all that has changed. We have to pay a percentage of what we make now when we retire. They’ve since dropped the retirement percentages. It’s been a gradual change for benefits. But before, Dartmouth was a place where people wanted to come to work. It was hard to get in at Dartmouth at that time. I had my application in for four months. I had taken another job somewhere else but when this came up I had to take it.

What did you do when you first came here?
I started at the old Thayer Hall, from 5pm-1:30am. My first days off were Tuesday, Wednesday. And then I moved to Wednesday, Thursday and then I got Friday, Saturday. That’s all the process of being in a union and getting seniority as positions opened up. The position I got at Thayer, the woman had passed away from cancer, I had the right seniority, so I got a Mon-Friday job, 7-3:30. And I’ve been lucky to be in that position.

Did you become a member of the union as soon as you started working?
I had my ninety day period. You’re on probation for ninety days. Your health insurances starts right away but the union dues don’t come out until the end of the ninety days. What that means is the college can fire you for any reason. If you don’t show up, if you’re late, the college can fire you for anything. They can terminate you in those ninety days. You don’t get any benefits either except for health insurance, and you don’t have job security.

So, what does it mean to be in a union?
What it means for us, we’re making a living wage. Well, some of us are, it depends how many kids we have an all that. We’re getting health insurance. It’s not the Cadillac like it used to be but that whole industry has changed. You get personal time, vacation time, retirement fund. You have job security. I believe in unions and I believe that they’re a good thing. That’s how we got the middle class. Also, I need protection with my strong personality. If it weren’t for the union I would have been gone a long time ago. I’m not a yes person, so to speak.

What leadership roles have you had in the union?
I was a shop steward. A shop steward is a person who represents another union member when they need to be disciplined. Stewards and shop stewards keep an eye on the area and let Chris know if there are things coming up. They sit in on most disciplinary decisions.

How did you become secretary-treasurer?
When I was steward I did some things people didn’t like but it was out of fairness that I did it. The issue was the holiday schedule. They were treating Thanksgiving and the holiday rotation schedule as a separate holiday. It should have been included in the rotation but it wasn’t. You see, certain people got to work Thanksgiving all the time because they didn’t it in the rotation. Out of fairness we changed that. I pissed a few people off and later down the road they probably realized that it was alright. I’m very fair. Over the years I’ve been a very black and white person and I’ve had to develop some grey. Six months went by, Marilyn, the old secretary treasurer who was there for twenty years, was getting ready to retire. Chris approached me and said you have a background in bookkeeping. So I started following her around, learning stuff, picking stuff up and the college, they started giving me a hard time. They said why aren’t you working? We had to get Chris on the phone to tell them, ‘she’s doing union time, it’s none of your business.’ When I take time off for the union all we have to say is, it’s union time and they have to back off.

What do you do as secretary-treasurer?
I have to keep track of the union roster, membership list. I pay all bills. I make sure lost wages are paid, payroll taxes are paid. I have two big reports at the end of the year. Make sure that if we have office supplies we have them. Sometimes I’ll help Earl with letters.

What’s it like being the only woman on the union’s leadership?
Sometimes it’s difficult. But for the most part I’m very respected and protected by my officers. If something is really going bad they’re right there to support me. I’m very fortunate of that. I respect Earl and Chris with all my heart and soul and all my officers.

Have things changed for the union since you started working at Dartmouth in 2001?
Yes. Respectability towards the union has changed. I’m on my third set of negotiations. The demeanor at the table is so different. The respectability of how we’re treated, just in a timely manner. How we’re responded to at the bargaining table. At times it’s not professional. It can be arrogant. We’ve been waiting a while for a contract and it’s going on and on. It’s crazy. You sit in a meeting for three hours and it’s more stressful than working an 8 hour shift. It’s very frustrating. I was on the committee when we did the Hanover In contact. We lost 20% – %22 in benefits. But there was a different demeanor in the room. We were respected. This is what they could give us. And they were truthful with us. The last contract they were not truthful with us, so right now it’s been very difficult, because the trust has been broken.

I know four years ago there were lay-offs and huge cuts to the healthcare plans. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah they made huge cuts in healthcare premiums. What they did with us was we went into co-pays, our co-pays went us. It used to be 10 dollars now its 30 dollars for specialty out of your pocket. And the prescriptions have all changed. The co-pays have gone up for those too. It’s a huge deal for people who have two-person families. Even Earl he’s paying out tooth and nail. I have one friend, she is a single-income parent, she just struggles with the co-pays and trying to keep up with that. She has two children, has a husband, he can’t work. She got behind on her rent because of the co-pays and insurance and stuff. Most people are on payment plans up at the hospital. Earl has had three kinds of cancer. He’s on one at the hospital. Yeah, he’s a miracle.

What else is the situation like?
In dining services because they’re so short-staffed right now a lot of union members are picking up overtime. And to pay the out of pocket health stuff that’s been going on, just to stay above water. When you go two years without raises but you have all these extra bills that you have to pay, it’s not good. There haven’t been wage increases in two years. Our new wages should have started July 1. When the contract kicks in they’ll be retroactive pay. Or should be, at least.

What is the future of the union?
They’re trying to dismantle unions nationwide. You see it all over. But we’re standing strong. We’re not going to back down. We’re going to move forward. We’re going to beat this. I’ll go to my grave fighting this. If all of sudden we’re not working on campus, they’d be in trouble. We’re 440 strong and they’d be in a world of hurt without us. They don’t think they would be, but you gotta a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, and you can’t just replace that.

What’s it like working at Novack?
Novak is a fabulous place to work. I work with a wonderful lead, Erin. We compliment each other, we work very hard together. We’re both glad to work at Novack, because we’re out of the politics of 1953 commons. We only answer to Beth Rosenburg. I think the students enjoy us. We try to make it fun at times. It gets crazy busy at times.

What’s it like working with Dartmouth students?
Students are good to work with. I have the attitude that they’re here at college to learn and the job is secondary to what they’re here for. I don’t have high expectations of them. They’re for the most part good to work with. In any place you have bad pennies. With Erin and me there we constantly keep the place busy and clean and stocked. So they basically wait on the counters until it gets really busy and we both jump in. They’re refreshing, they keep us young.

But it’s not the same now working for the college as it used to be, if I understood correctly?
There used to be a real respectability between the union and the college and it doesn’t seem to be there anymore. The college isn’t so much a place to want to work anymore. The benefits have changed so much.

What you like to see from the college?
The respectability back for the union. If it wasn’t for this union I can’t even imagine. We talk to a lot of staff that are not in the union and a lot of them are scared, they don’t want to speak up. But we’re here for them.

~by Dani Valdes

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