State of Our Unions

Posted by Alex Hodor-Lee

The recent "union battle" has been dramatic. Like me, you probably require a simple explanation.

Some employees at Skidmore-dining hall workers, spa cooks and night shift workers-are part of the SEIU union. Unions have their benefits. Think of it like this: when citizens are too busy to engage in negotiating complex policy issues, they elect representatives to negotiate laws on their behalf. Citizens then pay taxes to keep the government and representatives' salaries a-flowin'.

Unions are similar. Workers pay dues (a la taxes) to a union that represents them in negotiations. In this case, workers are negotiating the terms of their healthcare, pensions and salaries with Skidmore College administrators.

Last spring, a disgruntled Skidmore employee convinced other workers to join a new union, UPSEU. This created a divide among workers at the College. Recognizing the divide, Skidmore administrators encouraged workers to de-unionize so that the College could have greater hiring and firing power, and, in some cases, actually increase benefits to workers they appreciate. While on the one hand this is meritocratic, it also decreases job security for employees. De-unionizing would cost the College more money, but it's a cost their willing to incur if it means a more direct relationship with workers, according to administrators.

Having rejected the notion of de-unionization,workers will vote which union to represent them: SEIU, which has represented them since 1974, or UPSEU, a new but risky choice (such is the nature of change). The vote will take place on Nov. 13.

This is the part that confuses me (and I'm sure many of you). A coalition of students formed the Skidmore Labor Student Alliance (SLSA). A difficult acronym, but you can call them Slizza! SLSA began as a student-led group that stood in solidarity with workers, supporting workers regardless of which union employees preferred. On Sept. 25, they held an impressive silent protest outside of the dining hall to show solidarity for Skidmore workers, who were going through a period of adversity.

It soon appeared the SLSA was providing lip service for SEIU, working closely with Teresa Mack-Piccone, a head SEIU coordinator. When I met with Teresa, she told me of the College's ills: reports of workers that were raped during late night shifts and union negotiations that were surreptitiously pushed to the summer and moved to private locations to evade whistle-blowing students. Phrases like "you didn't hear it from me," or "they're in bed with the mob" were hurled at me. She fed me more and more, watching me furiously scribble her every word on my reporter's pad as I imagined clearing the top shelf of my dorm room bureau for a Pulitzer (the first of many!).

She also told me about an SEIU organizer, Sean Collins, who was escorted off of campus by Campus Safety. According to Teresa, Campus Safety then conspired with the Saratoga Springs Police Department to dispatch a warrant for his arrest-driving him out of town.

My bubble began to burst and a desk at the investigative reporting unit at the New York Times seemed further and further away-many of these allegations were incredulous or even unverifiable. So I tried to confirm the story of Sean Collins. When I spoke to him, he rebuked the College's treatment of labor, but admitted that the story was not true. Later, I learned that negotiations are held every summer and the location, by law, is undisclosed to ensure the integrity of the negotiations.

Then it appeared that the SLSA became disenchanted with its role as SEIU's mouthpiece, too. After all, the goal was to support workers, unconditionally.

But on Oct. 28 there was an ideological shift: the SLSA would now endorse SEIU (the response from the student body was a resounding, collective yawn). Days later they posted a video of SLSA students entering closed negotiations-negotiations overseen by a federal judge-to proudly hand Barbara Beck, the College's head of Human Resources, a 500-signature petition regarding worker's healthcare-as pointless a gesture as it was illegal.

After watching the whole thing go down on video, I began to have Cynthia Carroll flashbacks.

Last year 40 students stormed a faculty meeting to express their disgust that Cynthia Carroll, a distinguished alum, vanguard female leader in the mining industry-a field known for its poor workplace conditions-would be the commencement speaker for the Class of 2013. After one student's staggering diatribe, President Glotzbach calmly asked, "So, what do you want?" There was a silence in the auditorium. The group of students had no answer.

It's unlikely that Barbara Beck read the petition or that it will have any impact on negotiations. Because, frankly, it doesn't matter what the SLSA say or does. The tight seams of a movement, which, in its nascent stages, embraced solidarity and supported workers' rights as sacrosanct, have slowly unraveled, revealing a group of students who have no idea what they're doing.

Last week the Student Government Association Executive Committee released a tepid statement admonishing the SLSA's actions (probably to appease the President's office). In turn, the SLSA retorted with a calm, but seemingly aggravated statement. I sense the aggravation comes from the SLSA's lack of real student support and their inability to navigate through a complex issue, in which their voice is not inherently critical.

I admire their empathic sensibilities, I really do. But like the Cynthia Carroll protesters-which resulted in only a defensive commencement speech, in turn interrupted by the erect bodies of silent protesters, who were yelled at by hockey bros screaming, "Sit down Jack-ass! You're ruining my big day!"-the SLSA gave in to false ideology.

On this campus, it seems many students are conflicted. On the one hand, students unconditionally support liberal ideals and embrace the progressive spirit, but on the other hand, many of them suffer from the guilt of privilege. Like the Cynthia Carroll charade, an angry squad, blinded by their ideals, was enamored with the idea of hastily fighting an establishment symbol. In the end, they began to lose sight of the real cause, taking the opportunity as performance; being seen as expressing moral outrage became more important than their noble instincts.

The exciting narrative of a College administration plagued by corruption and greed, which reinforced systems of oppression, became as compelling as it was casuistic. And eschewed from the SLSA's message was the best way for students to support workers: by carrying out the mundane and less ideologically sexy tasks-practicing cordiality at Spa or putting your silverware in the silverware chute at the dining hall (and not getting so drunk that you puke all over a Case couch-someone has to clean it).

Sadly, a hopeful, responsible movement again devolved into a theater production in self-righteousness. SEIU placated wide-eyed students to maintain their hegemonic grasp over workers, appropriating the voice of buoyant students to try to beat out de-unionization and other union competition that would have cost SEIU its cash stake in union dues. And though the SLSA members became conscious of employee's struggles, their ideology became their opiate, allowing them to believe that their hard work would result in revolutionary change at Skidmore, when really they were always doomed to play deeper into the hand of the elusive, amorphous face of capitalism.

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