Several years ago many Sarah Lawrence students joined with several workers to demand higher pay and more health benefits for employees of AVI, the company which provides the student body with food at Bates and the Pub. The union response to AVI workers, the school and the company worked out a new set of policies that allowed many of these demands to be met and for many workers to unionize. The students involved formed the Sarah Lawrence Workers' Justice club, a group devoted to discussing and acting around the issues workers at the college may face.
Recently, several Facilities workers have expressed the desire to join a union of their own. SLC Facilities workers number twelve in total, and are directly hired by the school's Facilities department. These workers are the ones who fix broken radiators, lights, doors, sinks, toilets and basically everything that might need repair on campus.
Certain Facilities workers are specifically interested in joining the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 30. This international union, founded in 1896, and part of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), is the largest union federation in the country. It currently has 400,000 members in the United States and Canada.
The five Facilities workers that were interviewed voiced great frustration regarding their pay, healthcare, and status among other workers. One worker said that the pay is simply not enough for the amount of work they do, given that there are twelve of them and about 50 buildings and spaces they personally repair, manage, and check on regularly. Even more daunting, perhaps, is the fact that only a single Facilities worker is assigned to all of the buildings at night. They pointed out that they have to pay $100 a week for health insurance, which doesn't cover dental or optical care. One worker also mentioned that the school forbids them from “fraternizing” with students— meaning anything from giving a student a ride in one of their trucks to speaking “too personally” with them. Another worker was especially vexed by the increasingly arbitrary manner in which the school deals with the Facilities Workers' Labor Day. One year, he said, they gave every Facilities Worker the day off. Another year, they had them work for premium pay. Another year, they had them work without premium pay.
Many of these workers have come to know the school very intricately--with one of them having worked here for more than 22 years, and a recently retired supervisor having worked here for 35 years. Even the recent retiree mentioned that another worker in the group is being denied certain benefits from the school. The workers interviewed collectively said that “99.9 % of us will vote yes” for the union.
All of the Facilities workers are scheduled to vote on whether or not to join this union on Nov. 21. Elections will be held by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an institution that deals with unfair labor practices and is the standard governing body for many labor organizations. In order to become part of a union, workers must either cast votes in a general election or do a “Card Check”, where each worker marks off on his or her card whether or not he/she wishes to be part of the union. The SLC administration opted for a general cast of votes instead of the card check.
But some are not convinced that the school has the workers' best interest in mind. Kelly Gilbert ('15), chair of SLC Workers Justice, said that the administration has recently brought in a top-notch “Union Avoidance Firm” Bond, Shoeneck, & King. Gilbert claimed that, “They've been intimidating these workers for the last few weeks [ … ] they've been sending them letters to their home addresses, telling them lies about unions, telling them they might get laid off if they vote yes for the union. They say that union organizers are traveling salesmen looking for dues, that they're not anti-union they are pro-employee, and they're just trying to protect them from these evil goons who want to take all their money.”
Gilbert said that she thinks the workers will vote yes for the union. “Most of them I've talked to are really into the idea of being in a union. Like a huge majority,” she said. “Some of them have been active in this for a while now.”
But concern about this issue has gone beyond just SLC Workers Justice. Faculty member and longtime SLC professor Komozi Woodard expressed his opinion that that the demand for a union is part of a basic democratic process in which the voice of the workers is adequately expressed. He said, “A number of the members of the faculty are extremely concerned about the choice of legal firms made by the college. And we are waiting for the college to correct any impressions made that might shame this institution by association with ruthless union suppression. This is not the ethos of a democratic community.”