The Right to Organize Teach-In brought students, faculty, and staff, even filmmaker Michael Moore, together to discuss the Sarah Lawrence Operations workers’ right to unionize and receive fair wages.
Facilitated by long-time history professor Priscilla Murolo in Reisinger Auditorium, the panel and audience deliberated the administration's refusal to meet directly with the Operations staff and compromise on fair wages and benefits.
Operations worker Patsy Moranu spoke of the administration's reaction to their decision to vote on unionization: “We got threatened that we would get laid off if we went union, they wouldn’t be able to afford us.”
Despite these threats, the twelve Operations workers that maintain the fifty-five buildings that make up SLC’s campus voted in late November, eleven-to-one, in favor of union representation. Despite this vote, however, Sarah Lawrence College has continued to work with Bond, Shoeneck & King, a law firm whose labor division specializes in destroying unions, to represent the college in negotiations with the Operations workers.
Operations staff member Salim Haddad stated the reasons unionization and higher wages are so important for the quality of the workers’ lives. “Every year it becomes increasingly tough to keep up with the demands to live a better lifestyle. We all want to live the American dream, we all want to own our own house, we want to get married, we want to be able to have kids and be able to provide for them.” What seem like obvious rights for hard working individuals become difficult without a supportive employer. Haddad continued, “They will look for every way to try to talk us out of going to the union and to say no to giving us a higher salary. We need the union, they have a bigger voice than we ever will. We know that if we work together we will make things right. We would like a fair agreement that will satisfy everyone.”
How could SLC, a place that prides itself on accepting and appreciating everyone have such a seemingly lack of appreciation for invaluable members of the community?
Moore exemplified how essential the Operations workers are, “When your toilet blows in the dorm, I’m guessing most people don’t go ‘Hey, step aside, I’ll take care of this.’ No, you freak out and pray that you can find one of these guys as soon as possible.” He added that the workers, “are not asking for a lot. They want some really simple things.”
As the conversation continued the students voiced their frustrations at the lack of transparency within the administration. For example, it is still not clear how much the college is paying the law firm and whether those costs would equal what the workers are asking. Further, students felt confusion about who to turn to for help. Murolo brought up the importance of students’ and faculty’s abilities to voice their opinions. “I think that it’s something that I didn’t understand when I was your age and I was in school that I understand now. A lot of the things I was afraid of speaking up for, and thought they will do this or that to me, they’re not going to do that and if they do we will be right behind you.”
“This is sad as a parent of a child who graduated from here,” Moore said, reflecting on his daughter’s experience at SLC. “We were really proud of the values that this school had and we would see students and how they processed things, how they would treat each other. There were not a lot of places back then that you could go and be yourself.” He asked that, “this administration do the right thing to honor the values of this college and the people who work here.”
“We are committed to providing a safe, functioning environment on a daily basis. We all hope that Sarah Lawrence College will understand our needs to partner with the union,” Haddad said. A thumbs up has become a symbol of this movement, and students can show their support of the Operations workers by giving a thumbs up when they see them on campus.
The committee for Workers Justice, which is Chaired by Kelly Gilbert (’15), meets at 7 p.m. on Sundays in the North Room of the Pub and is gearing up for a long battle. What the organization does not know is whether the college is prepared for that long battle and the publicity that is bound to come from a liberal arts college doing its best to undermine its employees' efforts to unionize. As Senior Class Co-President Emily Rogers ('15) said during the panel, “With enough people I think we can change things, I think we are changing things.”
by MaryKatherine Michiels-Kibler