Frustrations Over Labor Negotiations Increase After Worker is Fired

Facilities workers gathered in front of one of the department vans. Photo by Janaki Chadha '17

Facilities workers gathered in front of one of the department vans. Photo by Janaki Chadha '17

For many SLC community members, the firing of the College’s only electrician last Thursday has intensified concerns about Administration’s handling of the ongoing contract negotiations with the school’s facilities workers. The electrician, John, as noted in Professor Priscilla Murolo’s ongoing reports on the issue, was particularly active in the move towards unionization, and she, along with many other voices on campus, feel that this played into his firing. 

The incident in question happened on the first weekend of the semester, at the end of a 17-hour shift John worked that Saturday. Goofing off with a coworker in a Hill House elevator before he went home for the day, he placed a piece of blue construction tape on the security camera in the elevator as a joke but forgot to take it off when he left. This wasn’t noticed until two days later, by campus security, and later, after John was questioned, he was fired on the grounds that his action could have disrupted student safety. 

As Professor Murolo wrote in her report from the Sept. 16 bargaining session, “From the facilities workers’ standpoint, it’s suspicious to say the least that an individual so active in the union would be fired for an infraction that seems to call for nothing more than a reprimand.” As such, the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents the SLC facilities workers in the negotiations, is fighting to have the decision reversed, and the student group, SLC Worker’s Justice, has held two demonstrations on campus over the past week in acts of solidarity. 

“There was no disciplinary action on security for not noticing that one of the cameras were out for, like, 2 days,” said Hank Broege, a graduate student who runs the Worker’s Justice group, on what he perceives as the generally questionable nature of the decision. “[John’s] record is clean aside from this blue tape incident and I don’t think his actions were severe enough that he should deserve being fired and losing his job over it.” Broege also feels that the incident is very much linked to the larger unionization efforts on campus, particularly in terms of the attitude of administration toward the issue.

Facilities workers at Sarah Lawrence voted in favor to unionize 11-1 in November of last year, beginning months of negotiations with SLC administration. The administration’s bargaining team has included Julie Auster, Vice President of Human Resources at SLC, Maureen Gallagher, Director of Facilities, and Raymond Pascucci from Bond, Schoeneck, & King (BSK), a law firm hired by administration to help them negotiate with the workers. BSK, which many on campus have called a “union-busting firm” is getting paid for each meeting negotiation and has allegedly sent numerous letters to the operations workers about why they shouldn’t join a union, threatening them with possible unemployment.

At the first meeting it was suggested by the union spokespeople that the negotiations be open to observation by the members of SLC. Spokespeople from the administration refused. As a result, the union bargaining committee then recruited Professor Priscilla Murolo and Kelly Gilbert, who was co-chair of the Sarah Lawrence Workers Justice student group. Members of the bargaining committee include Sal Haddad, Patsy Moranu, and John Leggiero. Representatives of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 30, Brendan McPartland, Gary Archer, and Andres Puerta joined the meetings to support the workers at SLC. 

The four facility workers interviewed expressed frustration about their ranking among the other workers and employees on campus, as well as more specific requests such as better benefits, fairer wages and more vacation time. Due to concerns of being specifically targeted, the four workers asked to remain anonymous.

One major issue for them currently, which has been brought up several times in negotiations though no agreement has been reached, is the on-call system. Workers are expected to be on call, sometimes throughout the weekend, which means they can’t travel, or do anything too distracting in case they get called in for an emergency. The workers, however, are not compensated for being on-call, only receiving pay if they get called. 

“One person is on call for the entire weekend 24 hours up until 8 o’clock Monday morning. But we don’t get compensated. You can’t go to the bar, you can’t drink a beer, you can’t have a good time, you have to be ready at a second’s notice to come to work but you can’t tell me what we can or cannot do if you’re not paying me for observing my time,” says one of the operations workers.

Despite evident frustrations surrounding this issue on the part of both workers and campus activists, Julie Auster, Vice President of Human Resources for the College, expressed concerns about what she sees as, “huge uproar about a contract that we haven’t even completely negotiated.” She continued, “I think it’s very sad that there are people who are, maybe not intentionally but by their actions, dividing the campus a little bit. I mean, unions serve a very important function. They’re there to protect workers and working conditions, and they make sure that employers pay and treat their employees decently. I strongly believe that Sarah Lawrence already treats its faculty and staff decently. I think we do a good job at caring for all of our employees, and within the constraints of our finances, we pay the best salaries we can afford.”

On the subject of the College’s financial situation and how it relates to this issue, she added, “When we do negotiate the cost of any contract, including a union contract, we have to be mindful that we can only spend what’s affordable. And we have to be careful to remember that there aren’t just union members [involved], there are hundreds of other employees.” 

Professor Murolo disagrees that affordability is as much of a concern as administration is claiming it is. “It’s a matter of priorities. There are certain parts of the campus where it’s beautiful, where everything looks gorgeous and expensive and you go to other places on the campus and [it’s very different],” she said. “It’s priority. You can’t point to one thing and say ‘Oh, we’re too poor to fix that.’ No, you made a decision that this would get attention and that would not. So if you have offices where the college pays for everyone to have coffee, that’s very nice but maybe we can’t afford that. Maybe we have to pay for on-call for staff.”

The issue of transparency with these meetings has been addressed by both Broege and Professor Murolo, who point out the difficulty of finding how much the college is spending on BSK. “It’s a lot. I think based on kind of what other schools have been paying BSK it could easily be in the hundreds of thousands. But this is speculation based on what other schools have paid BSK,” Broege commented. 

A side issue that multiple students believe highlights the way workers are viewed on campus is that while the college allows for romantic and sexual relationships between SLC students and faculty, as long as the student isn’t academically involved with the teacher, they don’t allow for staff members to engage in sexual or romantic relationships with students. They also discourage any form of closeness with the students. Professor Murolo commented on this, saying, “About four or five years ago a memo came up from HR saying to employees if you are a staff employee you are expected not to have personal relationships with students. That doesn’t apply to the faculty.” While this isn’t being addressed at the negotiations, it’s on the minds of Professor Murolo and other community members. She added, “It’s really insulting, it’s like saying there are two classes of people here.”

Professor Murolo, as well as some students and workers, are optimistic that justice for the workers is on its way, considering how important they are to the College, but it is still very uncertain when an actual contract will be reached. For now, as various SLC community members fight for the decision on John’s firing to be reversed, it is clear that the campus will not remain silent on this issue.

Joseph McFarland '16

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