Less than a week before the most recent session of contract negotiations between facilities workers and college administration, Sarah Lawrence found itself to be the focus of a segment on News 12: Westchester's afternoon broadcast. The subject of the segment was a bake sale organized by SLC Worker's Justice to show student support for the workers, who moved to unionize in December 2014 and have been in the process of negotiations with the College since January of last year.
News 12 reporter Grace Noone observed, "You wouldn't expect students at Sarah Lawrence College, one of the most expensive in the nation, to hawk treats for the workers who keep their heat, air-conditioning and plumbing up and running."
She went on to detail concerns that have been voiced by members of the community for months—namely, arguments that operations workers are underpaid by the college, and that at times they work in unsafe conditions. Sarah Lawrence declined to comment for the segment, but on Monday afternoon, an email sent out by Maureen Gallagher, Assistant Vice President for Facilities, and Julie Auster, Vice President for Human Resource Services and Legal Affairs—both of whom sit on the College's bargaining committee—set out to provide information they wrote had been "missing from recent accounts and press coverage".
They assured that negotiations are not being delayed or dragged on by either side, and that Sarah Lawrence has been and will continue to negotiate in good faith. "Both sides have devoted countless hours to the bargaining process and have made significant progress toward a multi-year labor agreement," they said.
But those on the other side of the bargaining table have expressed a markedly different outlook on the progress of negotiations. The day after the latest bargaining session last Monday, six out of the twelve operations workers employed by the school did not come to work to send a message about their dissatisfaction with how they feel negotiations have stalled, particularly on the subject of wages.
"Basically, we're negotiating with ourselves," said Patsy Morano, a facilities worker who is part of the union bargaining committee. "They say they're negotiating in good faith but when you come down six dollars and they come up thirty cents, that's like a slap in the face to everybody." He continued, "They always write, things are going good—No, things ain't going good. Maybe things are going good on your end, they're not going good on my end."
Gallagher and Auster focused on two main points: that, from the college's perspective, facilities workers are not underpaid, and that the workers are not subjected to unsafe conditions, as was brought up in the News 12 segment. While the school has limited financial resources due to factors such as its location and relatively small endowment, they said, "The College’s bargaining team has surveyed wage and benefit levels for the same or similar jobs at several peer institutions, both union and non-union, and have found that Sarah Lawrence pay rates [for maintenance workers] are competitive."
Chair of Sarah Lawrence Worker's Justice and graduate student Hank Broege says this is inaccurate. "If you look at average wages for skilled journeymen like Patsy in Westchester, they're underpaid," he said. Women's History professor Priscilla Murolo, who also sits on the union bargaining committee and writes a blog about the negotiations, has argued that the peer institutions Sarah Lawrence is referencing to justify its pay rates, such as Skidmore College and Vassar College, are located in places with a vastly lower cost of living than Westchester County. If one factors this in, she says, Sarah Lawrence pay rates aren't competitive at all.
Gallagher and Auster argued last Monday that some disparity in the pay rate is justified because, they say, "the majority [of the maintenance staff] do not possess the highest credentials in their respective trades.”
The second source of contention on this issue is a recent Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) investigation into working conditions for maintenance workers at the College. Gallagher and Auster stated the investigation "confirmed that our work conditions are safe and our safety measures and training for our staff meet or exceed all the appropriate standards and guidelines." Those on the union bargaining committee, however, question the validity of this.
Morano says an OSHA representative pointed out dangerous areas on campus to him that workers should not enter, and that in his nine years at the College, the workers have not received OSHA training for how to handle asbestos and confined spaces. He said the College has promised future training for these two scenarios, but added, “that's because we got the union involved.” Broege also pointed out that the record of the investigation on the OSHA website says the case is currently open. The Phoenix reached out to the local OSHA office, which confirmed that the case is still in progress, but the conclusions that can be drawn from that are unclear.
Over the past few weeks, these frustrations have come to a point where the workers have begun discussing the possibility of going on strike if the College refuses to budge any further. Morano says the bargaining session this last Monday has moved him closer to voting in favor if it comes to that.
“As far as I'm concerned, and I'm speaking for me, I'm voting to strike,” he said. “I ain't just taking [their current offer]. I can't speak for all the guys, because they have families, they have houses, you know what I mean? I can't blame them, to vote not to strike, 'cus you could lose your job. And could I afford to lose my job? No, like everybody else.”
Broege explained that this process would start when the College offers what is called a 'best and final', which, he says, “is basically telling our side, take this contract that we've offered or go on strike,”—following this, the workers would take a vote. While the outcome of a strike can be that the employer gives in to certain demands, workers also face a serious risk of being fired, because, as Professor Murolo explains, “The law does not prevent them their replacement if they strike for a purely economic reason."
Asked for a comment on this possibility, Julie Auster told the Phoenix, “I certainly hope that a strike won't happen because everyone suffers in a strike including the workers. On the other hand the College recognizes that this possibility exists and is prepared for any eventuality.”
Discussions about these negotiations continue to go back to the school's priorities and what many perceive as a lack of financial transparency. Despite pressure from many in the community, the College still has not revealed how much they are paying Bond, Schoeneck & King, the law firm they hired in response to unionization efforts. Since the beginning of negotiations over a year ago, the firm has been heavily criticized by both students and faculty who say it has a reputation for busting unions.
The lawyer for the College, Ray Pascucci, has argued that, in terms of pay rates, the financial realities of the schools make it so salaries across the board (as in, not just facilities workers, but also professors, etc.) are generally at the lower end of the spectrum when compared to peer schools. But Professor Murolo has pointed out on her blog that while he may be right for the majority of those employed by the College, the salary of the president is right at the middle. "This is about priorities, this is not about being broke,” she commented.
On the same note, Morano said, “You say you got no money—well, how are you paying this lawyer? You're not paying him with peanuts, you're finding the money from somewhere. Well, you know what? You should be able to find money for the workers, the guys who keep the place going.”
Last week's email ended with Gallagher and Auster saying, “We fully respect [the workers'] right to unionize, and we are dedicated to being as supportive and fair toward them as we can be.” Speaking to the Phoenix separately, Auster said, “I think everyone involved in the negotiations is feeling somewhat frustrated and anxious to reach a conclusion, but this process takes a lot of time, and as long as both parties continue to negotiate in good faith I am optimistic that we can reach a contract sooner rather than later.”
But it doesn't seem the tensions around this issue are dissolving anytime soon. Both Morano and Broege felt the email was “just damage control”—a response to bad publicity. Morano continued, “They should be ashamed of themselves, especially this college, the name it has and what they stand for.” Reflecting on the past few months of negotiations, he added, “I never thought it would go this long. I thought they would be more fair about it. But are we better off with the union here now? Absolutely. At least we got a voice."
Janaki Chadha '17