First things first: We have a union at Dartmouth. This union is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 560. It includes staff from FO&M, DDS workers, carpenters, the people cleaning your bathrooms, the people riding the zamboni-like machines in Novack at 2 AM when only the most miserable or most delirious of paper-writers among us remain. The union here is comprised of people we students interact with every day, people who allow this college to continue educating.
In terms of students’ education, however, the college neglects at least one key component: knowledge or understanding about the issues of social (in)justice surrounding us, often perpetuated by the college itself. All students I spoke to (sampled from first-floor Berry and the Novack café on a Wednesday at between the hours of 6:30 PM and 8:00 PM) regarding the union here at Dartmouth – or even unions in general – gave similar responses of slight embarrassment at their ignorance of the issue.
Semarley Jarret ’14, when prompted for her opinion, answered, “Should I have opinions? I’m not informed about Dartmouth unions at all.” Meanwhile, Jane Cavalier ’14 stated, “I think I’m too uninformed to actually make a statement on it.” Heidi Meyers ’14, who currently works at Novack Café, says, “I don’t know too much about it… I had absolutely no idea there even was a union, and the only reason I’ve heard so much about it is that I work here thirty hours a week.” Many students take an even more apathetic response: Andrew Longhi ’14 testifies “Many students don’t consider it a pertinent issue… It’s not like an issue that is at the forefront of a Dartmouth student’s mind.”
These are not unusual responses – most students are unaware that people they talk to – or, the people they shuffle by and avoid making eye contact with – each day are members of a union; even fewer sympathise with the union’s necessity for the livelihoods of the people concerned: Becca Rothfeld ’14 said, “I don’t know enough to think things about unions, but my initial thought is that they’re reformism and not radicalism, and thus I oppose.” While this statement embodies a nobly radical stance, such opinions stand starkly separate from the day-to-day realities Dartmouth staff face – two years of frozen wages, layoffs, and a new healthcare system that leads most staff (especially those with chronic health conditions or with families) to pay more out-of-pocket. A custodian in Collis, who doesn’t wish to be named, said that he knows “a lot of people’ve had a difficult time the last few years.” Another worker at Collis Café, not a member of the union, explained how even one doctor’s visit would push him into debt, and he laughs at the idea of getting an appointment during reasonable hours at the new health clinic, “Dartmouth Health Connect.”
Well played, Dartmouth College administration. Keep information about the treatment of our workers quiet and students will remain apathetic, and, as you know, apathy is conservative; apathy reinforces existing power structures. Bobby Esnard ’14 puts it well: “I think that a lack of information contributes to student apathy. I feel like I’m not particularly well-informed and thus not entitled to an opinion.”
Attention students: we are entitled to opinions. Since 2010, the college has used endowment decreases as an excuse for budget cuts, but, according to a Dartmouth College press release, our endowment grew 18.4% in fiscal 2011, reaching $3.413 billion as of June 30, 2011 and $3.486 billion as of June 30, 2012. Dartmouth’s endowment is making its way back to its pre-crash 2007 high of $3.760 billion and is, in fact, higher than the 2006 value of $3.092 billion – before frozen wages and stripped-back healthcare. Our endowment is doing well: why isn’t this “trickling-down” to our staff?
In 2010, the administration used the stock market crash and subsequent huge endowment decrease (from $3.760 billion in 2007 to $2.825 billion in 2009) to excuse frozen wages, healthcare cutbacks, and many layoffs. Despite the fact that our endowment is now flourishing, the college has frozen wages for two years, continued to cut back on healthcare, and changed many 12-month positions to 9-month positions. Most dangerously, though, the Dartmouth administration has begun a practice of subcontracting. When the college subcontracts a job, it hires a subcontracting company to provide a worker. In such situations, since the college does not directly employ the individual, the subcontracting company becomes responsible for wages and benefits, giving the college the opportunity to duck out of contracts with college workers. The most visible examples of subcontracting on campus are places such as King Arthur Flour in Baker-Berry library and the Bagel Basement location near the medical school. While such places provide good service to students, workers hired directly by the college (staff guaranteed a living wage and benefits) have lost their jobs and have been replaced by subcontracted workers not given comparable compensation; if subcontracting continues unabated it could mean the end of SEIU Local 560. Subcontracting equals union-busting.
Mike Curran, who works at Courtyard Café and isn’t yet a union member, wants to become one in order to access “better pay and better benefits.” He says, “You can always complain, but these are pretty much the best cooking jobs around here.” Vice-President Spalding and Kevin O’Leary, associate general counsel for Dartmouth College, claimed in a meeting with Students Stand with Staff on Tuesday, that Dartmouth aims to provide “competitive wages and benefits” based upon local, regional, and national competition. They neglected to mention the role the union has had in securing those wages and benefits or that this ideology leaves the wellbeing of employees to the often harmful fluctuations of the market.
Though the current negotiations are secret, history professor Russell Rickford notices that the college’s policies over the past few years follow a trend that has been elapsing over the past thirty: “The financial crisis only provided the pretext to force some vulnerable people out (including several longtime, loyal workers) and impose austere conditions and benefits. Now that the college’s endowment is booming again, one would expect a decent raise and fair benefits for workers. But you must understand neoliberalism … The college is thinking long-term. Ultimately it wants to bust the union. This is part of an outlook that rejects all trade unions and any form of collective bargaining or worker protection as illegitimate and corrupt.”
Allison Puglisi ’15, a member of Students Stand with Staff, explains why unions are needed in our present neoliberal capitalist economy: “I think what a lot of people don’t realize about unions and why they’re so important is that without them, working people have no protection whatsoever. They’re at the whim of the economy and the management. They have no forum to collectively bargain and to voice their concerns when something isn’t right.”
Right now, something isn’t right. Something is clearly wrong when we have $42 million dollars to renovate the Hanover Inn but claim not to be able to offer the union a fair contract. SEIU Local 560 has been going through contract renegotiations since spring term. A contract has not yet been reached. All indications are that the college has not offered a fair contract: Though no information can be ascertained about the negotiations, other than that they are ongoing, if the union and the college have not agreed upon a contract over the past six months, given organized labor’s recent history of accepting small concessions (along the lines of frozen wages) in order to avoid a stalemate, we can conclude that the length of negotiations bodes ill for union workers’ wages and healthcare. The silence around contract negotiations works in the college’s favor, as it does not afford students the opportunity to oppose its contract propositions. Rothfeld continues, “While I have reservations… the situation seems so vague and so secretive that we would need more information to form opinions, and thus the first step is more transparency.” While transparency would be ideal, we do not have it and the college has not granted it. But from what we can deduce, the college has something to hide. This is not the sign of fair treatment of our staff.
It’s time for we students to take a stand. Rickford notes that, “Dartmouth students must recognize the connection between a society that condones driving down wages while corporate elites (flush with taxpayer subsidies and bailout funds) make bigger profits than ever, and a society that condones saddling college graduates with crippling educational debt, ensuring that many of them will be forced to join the most criminally exploitative firms and industries in order to repay their loans. When democracy is thriving and young people are awake, most of them recognize that workers and students are natural allies.” He added, during a student and faculty show of support to the union, “All workers intellectualise, but not all intellectuals work.”
Hey, students, it’s time to go to work.
~by anna winham
(For those of you who are offended by the use of the word “assaults;” it’s metaphorical but not hyperbolic. The way the administration is trying to bust the union verges on assault of their livelihoods, the ability to ensure living wages and a decent quality of life. Students Stand with Staff takes sexual assault seriously. This message is an acknowledgement that violence happens in many different ways)