Rhode Island School of Design custodians, caretakers, and movers picketed yesterday. (all images courtesy Teamsters Local 251)

Custodians, groundskeepers, and movers at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) picketed yesterday, February 15, in the face of grueling union negotiations. The nearly 60 workers voted to join Teamsters Local 251 last February and contract negotiations began in June, but seven months later, the workers still do not have a contract.

Although the university and union have reached tentative agreements on many issues, wages remain a sticking point. Average pay for RISD custodians, groundskeepers, and movers remains at $16.74 an hour, but 31 of the current 61 union members make less than $16. Only six union members make more than $20. Local 251 wants workers who have held their positions for over a year to make a minimum of $20 an hour. (Rhode Island’s minimum wage is set at $13 an hour, but the living wage for a Providence resident with no children is $17.38 an hour, as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Facing an impasse, the two parties have been working with a federal mediator since January.

Custodian and caretaker John Cabral reiterated to Hyperallergic that the most important issue facing the union is catching up on wages, and a RISD spokesperson confirmed that although progress has been made in other areas, “issues relating to wages remain open.” The latest bargaining session was today, February 16, but no agreements were reached.

RISD and Providence community members expressed their support for Local 251 at yesterday’s picket.

Seeing little movement from the school, the workers voted to authorize a strike on November 20 with a 95% margin. The university did not cave, but it soon faced community backlash. RISD and Brown University alumni, students, and Providence residents penned an open letter to the administration demanding it “immediately agree” to a fair contract.

“The university can more than afford to do this,” the letter read, citing the fact that in 2020, RISD had a $440 million endowment and a $161 million operating budget. By December 7, the letter had garnered 963 signatures.

Soon after, Local 251 filed the first of three unfair labor practice charges against the university: On December 13, the union alleged bad-faith bargaining. Local 251 Secretary-Treasurer Matt Taibi told Hyperallegic that the school had refused to give the workers the July annual raises typical for RISD unionized workers (the school has a number of unionized workforces). Instead, the university said those wage increases would be included in the upcoming contract.

The union filed its second unfair labor practice complaint in January, this one alleging a refusal to furnish information. Taibi said the university had stated it could not afford to meet the Local 251’s wage demands, but when the union asked see updated financial information (the last publicly available statements are dated June 2021), RISD declined.

Only a week later, on February 7, the union filed its third charge, again alleging bad-faith bargaining. Taibi said the university had hired new workers at a rate above that of some current union members. RISD allegedly did not notify Local 251 nor offer to bargain.

Local 251 has lodged three unfair labor practice charges against the museum since they began contract negotiations in June of last year.

Now, Local 251 is again pressuring RISD to negotiate.

“We believe in freedom of expression and respect the union’s right to conduct an informational picket,” the university spokesperson said. “At the same time, we are disappointed they have chosen to take this action while we have continued to participate in mediation sessions with the hope of reaching an agreement.” The spokesperson added that facilities staff serve important and vital roles at RISD, and that the school hopes to “resolve this negotiation in a fiscally responsible manner that appropriately reflects their contributions to our community.”

The spokesperson also stated that university has been negotiating in “good faith” and pays competitively in comparison to peer institutions, but pointed to the need to “balance many competing institutional needs against finite resources.”

At the picket, RISD and Providence community members came out to show their support for Local 251.

“Everyone on campus is supporting us,” Cabral said. “From teachers to other trades to librarians. And most importantly, the students. Supporting us in a huge way.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.