RISD students protest in solidarity with striking custodians, groundskeepers, and movers. (all photos by and courtesy Kara Lee)

Students across the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence walked out today, April 12, in solidarity with custodians, groundskeepers, and movers, who have been on indefinite strike since Monday, April 3. The striking workers, members of Teamsters Local 251, began contract negotiations with RISD in June 2022 but progress has been stalled since February 16 over wage increases.

In the past two days, the architecture, digital and media, and sculpture departments have all announced their solidarity with the striking Teamsters. Yesterday, April 11, painting department faculty postponed the afternoon’s classes and held a department-wide meeting in which students, professors, and staff members wrote a statement to express their solidarity. They will defer class time to supporting the strike again today, April 12, and Friday, April 14.

Earlier this week, students circulated a petition demanding that the school’s administration bargain “fairly, honestly, and with full transparency.” The letter insists that RISD meet the union’s proposed raises and provide reasoning for rejected proposals. The petition has received over 2,400 signatures.

“Seeing students of all years, BFA, MFA, and faculty gather together to discuss how to make our solidarity felt in supporting the strike has been invigorating,” painting student Kara Lee told Hyperallergic. “We know intimately the value of our workers, they are the ones that maintain our facilities, our studios, and our homes. We would not be RISD, nor a community, without them.”

Students at today’s protest

Currently, the average wage of a RISD custodian, groundskeeper, or mover is $16.74 per hour. The lowest wage is $15.30. Teamsters Local 251 has fought for a $20 minimum wage, a demand the union’s secretary-treasurer Matt Taibi called “overwhelmingly popular.”

Indeed, support for the striking workers has expanded beyond the school’s campus. On Monday, Providence city council members penned a letter to RISD’s Board of Trustees and President Crystal Williams to “strongly urge” the school to engage in “honest negotiations.”

“Insisting on being paid a livable wage is not an excessive demand and we stand with these workers as they exercise their right to organize and strike,” the letter reads.

Teamsters Local 251 has filed three unfair labor practice charges against the school and a federal mediator is now involved in negotiations. The last bargaining session took place April 6.

A spokesperson for the school told Hyperallergic that the union “once again” made demands for wages that “demonstrated an unwillingness to have reasonable discussions with the goal of reaching agreement.” They added that RISD offered the union a “fair and fiscally responsible offer” in February.

The painting department’s statement

“The union’s response to this offer to date can hardly be considered a counter proposal,” said the spokesperson.

Taibi said that on April 6, RISD did not respond to the union’s March 18 proposal and instead held firm on its February 16 “final” offer.

“The College hasn’t moved off its economic positions in months, while the Union has consistently made good faith proposals throughout negotiations,” said Taibi, adding that the college has “shown a pattern of bad faith.”

“Despite its outward posturing of progressivism and diversity, RISD is an institution that was founded on and continues to benefit from and perpetuate colonial structures,” reads the painting department’s statement. “It is sadly typical that RISD refuses to provide a livable wage to its most crucial employees.”

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.