Posted by Aneta Molenda
At one of the wealthiest colleges in upstate New York, boasting an endowment close to $300 million (National Center for Education Statistics), Skidmore College workers, in separate personal interviews, are describing a struggle for "dignity" that is scaring them "to death." The following situation is what one dining services worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, described to me as "the beast of Skidmore."
Skidmore workers have been represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1972. The initial battle to unionize our campus lasted over a year and was led by a group of five workers-Carl Ure (Central Receiving), Wilbur Wright (Cook), Vie Oliver (Housekeeping), Maria Marcolongo (Cook), and Joseph Moore (Cook)-who are remembered by many Skidmore workers to this day.
This past summer, a petition was filed by the United Professional and Service Employees Union (UPSEU) to displace the current union when 45 workers signed UPSEU membership cards. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) then initiated an election process and a vote took place on Aug. 1.
Workers had three options-stay with SEIU, switch their representative to UPSEU, or elect to forgo union representation entirely. One of the three parties had to receive a super majority in order to win.
The initial vote resulted in a tie between the two unions, with UPSEU receiving 66 votes and SEIU receiving 52 votes (another 20 people voted to go non-union). A federal judge has yet to announce the ruling on a new date for a second vote, and it is unclear whether it will be a run-off between the two unions or if the non-union option will remain as well.
Prior to the vote, Skidmore's Human Resources pitched the "benefits of going non-union" to employees who are already members of SEIU. Even President Philip A. Glotzbach himself urged workers to go non-union in a letter to the affected employees, arguing that they could "make our community even stronger by voting not to have a third-party organization come between you and the college."
But does the College care about its workers? Anyone familiar with the larger fight for the rights and dignity of service workers across the United States will realize that with "no union" there is a risk of "no rights." Skidmore workers stand to lose the most significant advance they have fought for since members unionized forty-one years ago: their bargaining power.
With workers' contracts about to expire, the critical matter facing our unionized workers is their fight at the bargaining table with the College. The key concerns SEIU Skidmore workers and the negotiations team have identified, says organizer Mack-Piccone, include "a fair and equitable retirement package that allows them to live in some modicum of security after a lifetime of service to the College, a decent health insurance package that the College contributes to fairly, and for the first time in the history of the SEIU Skidmore contract, a living wage compensation plan that realistically meets the basic levels of service-worker pay in Saratoga county, let alone those of New York state as a whole."
One 36-year SEIU member and dining hall worker who wished to remain anonymous explains, "We are asking the college to treat us right. Aren't we worth our hire?"
Regardless of whether SEIU or another union ultimately represents the workers, the workers' successful outcome to the continued negotiations with the College is absolutely crucial.
If we, as students, care about our workers and what they do for us, we need to educate ourselves. Strike up a conversation with facilities or the cleaning staff (while they are on break, of course). Ask questions, even as simple as, "What are the issues most important to you in negotiations right now? How can we-as students-help support you at the bargaining table?"
Show our workers that students stand behind them in this fight, and let's start building a coalition, not to support one union over another union, but rather to support the amazing people on our campus who too often go unnoticed. These are the people who clean our dorms and buildings, maintain the mechanical equipment, prepare and serve our food, keep our grounds and landscapes beautiful, organize the student mail, and care for our horses and stables.
What kind of institution do we want to be a part of? We can make it happen.