When, in a given system of governance, constituents petition their representatives to make a change and receive no response or reaction to their petition, what is their recourse?
They could continue to have faith in the very system that failed them and try time and again to achieve incremental success. They could, miraculously, achieve total victory after a long, drawn-out battle. Or they could work outside the system and try to disrupt the status quo in their favor and send a strong message to those in charge.
This latter approach consists of protesting, and it is precisely the tactic that the Student/Labor Dialogue (SLD) has employed to combat the alleged mistreatment of campus dining workers, the supposed result of significant mismanagement and ignorance by the College and by Bon Appétit, Vassar’s new food provider.
In this week’s column, as with many of my past columns and as I laid out in my first article of this year, I feel I have no choice but to scrutinize my own side on this issue. I ask the scores of progressive readers who have already begun formulating their angry comments to hold off on that for just a moment and hear me out. Here is why:
About three weeks ago, I was extremely concerned both about the financial feasibility of a more labor-friendly budget—given the hits that the endowment has taken in recent years—as well as about the actual ability of this less-than-flashy protest movement to gain the support of the Vassar community. While I recognize that these concerns came from a vantage point of significant privilege, they were legitimate thoughts about the movement all the same, and I believe it is incredibly important that anything and everything in the public sphere be scrutinized appropriately. That being said, I no longer have those concerns.
They were resolved for me at the Student/Labor Dialogue protest at the Deece on Friday, Sept. 15. Two things about that protest stood out to me and caused me to abandon my preconceived notions. For one thing, the turnout of hundreds of
students representing a diverse range of student groups who were quite earnestly and passionately fighting against the disrespectful treatment of Vassar’s kitchen workers showed me that this issue does indeed resonate with a significant number of students.
What really shook me, however, was the passionate and powerful testimonial given by Cathy Bradford, an ACDC worker and a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) representative. Her speech at the rally was, quite simply, spectacular.
She talked about a serious problem in a straightforward manner and with a very simple diagnosis, illustrating a stark and sensible correlation-causation relationship between the advent of Bon Appétit at Vassar and the consequent woes of the kitchen staff. She gave real, human examples of the hardships that Vassar employees have been facing and continue to face every day. She presented solid facts in support of her argument, gave reasonable context to the issues she was attempting to tackle and laid out both a pragmatic and concise agenda on just what needs to be done. All this was achieved, no less, while giving a speech that the crowd and I found deeply moving.
Nevertheless, I felt I had to take a deeper look not at the intentions or ideology of SLD or Bradford, which are, to be sure, clear and admirable, but rather the effectiveness of their tactics in influencing Vassar’s power structures. Their demands of the administration and of Bon Appétit are as follows: 1) that they ensure safe, stable working conditions, 2) that they post organized and regular work schedules and 3) that they maintain fair and transparent hiring processes.
The Vassar administration has said, more or less, that it feels unmotivated to take action on this issue. Thus it appears that the SLD rally, despite its strong student turnout, has failed to sway them. According to a Miscellany News article about SLD and the rally, “Dean of College Christopher Roellke explained: ‘We have been working diligently on these issues and will continue to work on them in earnest, in good faith and in alignment with our collective bargaining agreement’” (“Students, staff rally for better ACDC working conditions,” The Miscellany News, 09.20.2017). While the language in that statement may sound supportive and promising, I sense a strong feeling of complacency in it. Nowhere does Roellke state that he has been moved or swayed by the protests in any way, nor does he make any mention of SLD’s very reasonable demands. Roellke even went as far as to dismiss the act of protesting altogether saying, “My advice for students and workers is to continue to allow the dialogue to proceed as it should via the processes outlined in the collective bargaining agreement” (Miscellany News). It was clear from the outset that the administration’s position on the SLD platform was simultaneously adversarial and complacent, and the protest does not seem to have changed that in any substantive way.
Now, I should concede that I am about as much in the dark about precisely what has been going on with negotiations between dining staff and the administration as everybody else. The administration’s comment, while somewhat off topic, was pretty edifying. I was informed that the administration’s current position is that negotiations will only involve the administration, the workers and their representatives. Third-party involvement has not only been discouraged, but dismissed outright. There is no saying whether or not the ACDC workers will get their demands met in these closed-door meetings, but I find it unlikely.
So what might change the administration’s mind? To explore that question, we must consider how the administration is typically persuaded to change their stance on an issue. Why do administrations push back so hard against environmental and political divestment movements? Why does Vassar spend an exorbitant amount of money on frivolous alumnae/i amenities and events? Why do colleges across the country have such a difficult time bringing in student bodies from a diverse range of socioeconomic backgrounds?
Simply put, it’s because of money.
Colleges tend to make their most unpopular decisions in order to secure their endowments and to keep the constant flow of alumnae/i money coming. After all, without an endowment, how can you fund a school? As the administration reiterates to donors, tuition alone doesn’t come close to funding the school’s operations. Of course, there are other factors that influence college administrators, but arguably none more so than money.
Given this, the best strategy (and perhaps the only viable strategy) for SLD is to use their most valuable bargaining chip. Protests do not on their own sufficiently demonstrate that the cause will result in lost revenue for the school. The student organizers have to use their power to demonstrate to the school a threat to their funding by, for example, circulating a petition in which signers pledge to withhold donations to Vassar until SLD’s demands are met.
This would not only work from a strategic perspective, but would also bring a more principled approach to what has thus far been primarily a symbolic movement. Although the turnout for SLD’s protest at the ACDC was surprising indeed, the methods have not been particularly effective—at least to date. Marching and chanting can be much more like checking the box and being contented with participation credit than creating actual change.
Students at the ACDC protest clearly had the drive and enthusiasm necessary to effect change. The cause fits well into the narratives of long-overlooked and marginalized members of society that so strongly resonate with the Vassar community. There is much more that can be done to harness this energy, however. As was said at the protest, the fight is not over. Far from it, in fact.
Without constant and persistent organizing, a protest movement might as well be dead. Only through the support of an impassioned movement can all the demands of SLD be guaranteed to workers on campus. That is exactly why SLD must take the steps outlined in this column.
The way to have an effective protest is for the protesters to exercise power. They have the power; now it’s simply a question of whether or not they will use it.