On Nov. 21, 2014, Sarah Lawrence history was made when the college’s workers voted to unionize by a margin of 11-1. Since then there has been a great deal of controversy regarding whether or not the college was shifting its values as a progressive institution.
One of the most compelling reasons for the above argument is because of a law firm the college hired to negotiate with the workers: Bond, Schoeneck, and King (BSK). In a letter to the student body, President Karen Lawrence explained that the firm was hired because it is “experienced in negotiations involving higher education institutions and recommended by three-quarters of the peer colleges we consulted.” What has been troubling to the majority of the student body is that BSK’s labor division allegedly has an 80-year anti-union history. Of additional concern, according to BSK’s 2009 annual report, was their litigation in “New York's highest court...to eradicate sexual harassment through the promotion of effective workplace procedures…rather than a system which promotes costly individual lawsuits.”
On Jan. 30, 2015, a teach-in was organized by students and faculty in Reisinger Auditorium, perhaps most notably attended by filmmaker Michael Moore whose daughter attended SLC over a decade ago.
"It would be the last place I would expect to see this kind of rotten behavior," he said towards the end of his speech.
What has been taking place over the last several weeks are negotiations between the union to which the workers belong, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 30, which has formed a bargaining committee, an attorney from BSK representing SLC, and an outside consulting attorney, Jane Jacobs of Klein Zelman Rothermel Jacobs & Schess. The negotiations have been ongoing since Jan. 8, 2015.
Priscilla Murolo, SLC faculty member and Director of the Graduate Program in Women’s History, who attends the weekly meetings, has said that the negotiations seem to be moving rather slowly, noting a lack of addressing economic issues by spokespeople of the administration. “[...]They have balked at some provisions that are pro forma in union contracts--for example, identifying the administration as "the employer" and agreeing to notify the union when new vacancies occur in the department whose workers the union represents,” she said.
Because of the slow pace of the labor negotiations, what is to come from the next meeting on April 20 is a five hour meeting as opposed to the typical one hour sessions.
Murolo also said that she does not seem to notice a change from the administration besides the attorney from the law firm seeming to be more comfortable speaking on behalf of the administration. “At the last session he spoke about what "we" will do or won't do in such a self-assured manner that one would think he were running the college,” she explained. “I must say that gave me a creepy feeling.”
Murolo has noted that the administration seems to be lacking transparency and one way by which to improve that is for students and faculty s to be allowed to attend the bargaining sessions.
“I don't think the insistence on closed-door meetings reflect evil intent on the part of our administrators,” she said. “I think that bargaining frightens them, and that "union-avoidance" law firms like BSK take advantage of such fear, promising to protect administrators from unions in return for a hefty fee. I'd like to see our administration take its cues from an entirely different direction--say, Smith College, whose employees belong to several different unions, all of which have cordial relations with the school's administrators.”
One of the most vocal supporters on behalf of the workers throughout the negotiations has been Sarah Lawrence Worker’s Justice, a student based organization that works to advocate for and protect the rights of workers on campus and in the larger community. Co-chair Kelly Gilbert (’15) attends the weekly meetings to take notes and share updates with the SLC community.
Gilbert has also noticed the lack of transparency within the administration and, while she thinks the school is on the right track to improving this situation, there is still a long ways to go. “We also still have unanswered questions: how much is the school spending on BSK's consulting services? Because BSK is trying to get into the higher ed market, how can we ensure that they will never be present on our campus again?” she said.
The campaign picked up a lot of steam when the workers were first negotiating for rights and Gilbert wants to keep the momentum going. “I want students to know that these negotiations could affect all workers on campus in some capacity […] Unionization helps non-union workers by raising standards!”
Spencer Goldrich (’16), a Worker’s Justice member, also added that in terms of getting involved, perhaps one of the most important ways to do so is to directly speak to the workers.. “If a maintenance worker is in your dorm fixing something, please take the time to say hi and/or ask them about negotiations,” he suggested. “It's important for them to know they are seen and heard by the beneficiaries of their labor (us students) and that we care about them, and for what they are so courageously fighting.”
For more information please visit priscillamurolo.net or the Sarah Lawrence Worker’s Justice pages on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr. Sarah Lawrence Worker’s Justice meetings are in the North Room of the Pub at 7 p.m.
by Mary Kekatos '15