Essential staff at RISD (photo used with permission from Teamsters Local 251)

Unionized workers including custodians, groundskeepers, and movers at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) have voted to authorize a strike. In a written statement published on November 30, Teamsters Local 251 members cited RISD’s refusal to negotiate a reasonable standard for wage improvement, healthcare benefits, and a retirement package. Following the 52 to four vote to unionize in February of this year, the decision to strike was made by a 95% margin.

Workers said the move to unionize came after a shift to new management which they felt was not respecting their hard work and time. Accusations that the university “takes advantage” of employees with Spanish and Portuguese as their primary languages, “assigning tasks usually performed by multiple workers,” were also publicized in the initial press release announcing the vote to unionize.

Whether the strike takes place or not will depend on the outcome of two bargaining sessions, set to take place between Local 251 and the university in the near future.

“We’re hopeful that there will be progress made in these next bargaining dates on the schedule,” Matthew Taibi, vice president of the eastern region for Teamsters Local 251, told Hyperallergic. “And if we have to escalate to a strike as a last resort, then we’ll take those steps.”

Taibi highlighted that the chief priority for members of Local 251 is improved wages. He told Hyperallergic that the starting hourly wage for a custodial staff member is under $16 an hour. According to the Living Wage Calculation page developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the living wage for a single adult with no children in Providence County, Rhode Island, is $17.72 an hour. The number almost doubles to $34.29 an hour if there’s one child in the household.

“Of the group of around 65 members, almost all of them make below $20 an hour,” Taibi said. “What we’re looking for is a hard wage that’s sustainable for someone with a family.”

In regards to the current state of the bargaining meetings, Taibi stated that RISD’s compensation philosophy indicates that they’d like to sit at the 50th percentile in the comparable labor market for wage rates for the occupations within the union. “We think that they should be leaders as a prestigious art institution which is not cheap to go to at all,” Taibi said point-blank, referencing the annual tuition alone, upwards of $56K for education through the private university.

A spokesperson for RISD told Hyperallergic that the university and Local 251 have made “significant progress” toward an agreement since the bargaining meetings that have been taking place since June, but “issues relating to wages remain open.” The spokesperson noted that employees stay with the university for about 10 years on average.

“As with all of our collective bargaining negotiations, we balance many competing institutional resource needs against finite resources,” said a statement from RISD. “At the same time, we make certain that RISD is a competitive employer and that our staff is well-paid, which we ensure through a continual review of RISD positions in comparison to similar positions at other institutions and organizations. Our facilities staff serve in important and vital roles at RISD and we value them as we do all of our employees.”

In the Teamsters release, custodian and union negotiator Regina Santos said that “universities are supposed to ascribe to a moral standard loftier than net profit.”

“They should care about the well-being of their employees and their families so that they can support themselves. That should be a priority and they should not be afraid to be leaders,” Taibi said. “If their compensation philosophy had been in line with what their employees agreed with, you know, they wouldn’t have voted 52 to four for Local 251 to represent them and bargain a fair contract.”

A petition signed by hundreds of current and former RISD and Brown University students and Providence community members urges the administration to “move swiftly to meet these workers’ demands.” The petition, co-authored by RISD alumni Rachel Harris and Wen Zhuang, will soon be presented to RISD’s board of directors and leadership.

Editor’s Note, 12/5/2022, 7:00pm EST: This article has been updated to include information about a petition signed by current and former RISD and Brown University students.

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Rhea Nayyar

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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