In this past week, students around campus may have noticed an informational pamphlet, “What Vassar Doesn’t Want You To Know: A Guide to Labor on Campus,” cropping up in various places around campus. The pamphlets were distributed by the Student-Labor Dialogue early on Monday morning in an effort to inform the Vassar community about workers’ issues at Vassar.
“The Student-Labor Dialogue (SLD) began in the Spring of 2013 to open a conversation between workers and students in order to create transparency around workers’ issues at Vassar” (“What Vassar Doesn’t Want You To Know: A Guide to Labor on Campus”).
The group is a compilation of students and workers on campus who are trying to create an open and safe space to meet and discuss issues surrounding better wages, benefits, and working conditions on campus for Vassar workers. Even though SLD is fairly new, their total participation ranges from 100-150 campus workers with a similar number of students.
“The SLD came out of Vassar Young Democratic Socialists.(YDS) We wanted to create a space that fostered community between students and workers, and members of YDS had relationships with workers who had made us aware of some of the workplace issues on campus,” stated Sarah Slichter ’15.
The conversation is meant to create solidarity between students and workers who interact on a daily basis at Vassar in the hopes of mutual gain for both parties. SLD describes itself as a social justice group. “The SLD itself has also been point of convergence for students from different orgs,” said Slichter.
“I think some of the most active and engaged and supportive students are also involved in other orgs and our mission aligns really closely with the mission of a lot of other orgs,” mentioned Will Blum ‘15. The amalgamation of voices that make up SLD make it a diverse organization on campus.
The pamphlets distributed around campus were the first of many steps toward informing the Vassar community and helping to support the workers on campus. They were specifically designed by SLD to inform students and workers on campus to the matter concerning workers’ issues. Within the pamphlet is information the administration at Vassar did not explicitly inform students of, including a reference to the last time there was a staff forum at Vassar.
In 2008, the College had to adapt to the financial crisis facing the country and thus created a plan to cut more than 30 full-time jobs on campus. This plan was met with opposition and when the workers pushed back against the administration, President of Vassar College Catharine Hill left the discussion, communicating to the forum that she was unwilling to participate further. There were also two instances of hunger strikes on campus, one in which three students on campus went on a hunger strike until the administration ensured them that 13 employees, whose jobs were in danger, would be employed in the coming year.
“We met with the administration. The administration obviously has a different take on what happened there,” stated Blum in regard to the 2008 forum. “But no one disputes the facts that the administration shut down the forum and has refused to hold one up until now.”
Vassar has failed to conduct another staff forum since then and the issues surrounding workers’ rights have yet to be abated.
The continued tension between workers and administration has come to a head now, with Hill and Vice President for Finance and Administration Robert Walton agreeing to hold another forum with the workers at the end of this semester. However, the administration has made the decision to keep the forum closed to students, except for three students from SLD chosen to attend. SLD cites this as progress in that the 2008 staff forums were barred from all students.
“There are three particular students who the administration has identified and said that they will be allowed to attend the forum,” said Blum. “This is definitely a positive step forward, but to us it still indicates that there’s some apprehension on their part with actual transparency and with letting all students who care see what the relationship is between administration and workers.”
This is where the pamphlets come in handy for both students and workers on campus. Those who are unable to attend the forum, or were otherwise unaware of these issues, can look to the pamphlets for a brief review of the history of workers’ issues on campus and how Vassar has addressed this issue in the past.
“Our strategy of distributing pamphlets is based on the administration’s indication that they do not want the forum to be open to students. The SLD want the issues that the workers would have brought up in the forum—that students could have been privy to had the forum been open—to be communicated to the students regardless of what the administration wants,” stated Slichter.
She continued, “The students have a right to know about what’s happening with the workers. The workers have a right to communicate to the students. We posted the pamphlet and we distributed it widely. And it’s been read widely.”
The SLD find this upcoming forum to be a big step in what they were working toward. The story of the 2008 staff forum was one of the first historical accounts student members of SLD learned about.
“It’s a story, I think, that was representative of general mode of relating to workers on the part of the administration,” said Blum. “And it’s nice because it ties together workers’ issues. What happened at the forum was really about layoffs. Workers were getting squeezed really hard and spoke up about it, but the forum also became a thing in itself; its own instance of intense disrespect. That’s a story that we’ve heard over and over from workers.”
SLD hopes to change the way the administration and workers interact on campus and the forum later this semester is a good starting point for them.
SLD wants to have the forum open for all students to attend.
“The pressure we’re putting on the administration has resulted not in the actual staff forum, but in their inviting, arbitrarily, three students to the forum, and budging, however minutely, on the issue of getting students in the room,” said Slichter.
SLD also emphasizes the need for mutual respect between administrators and workers on campus.
“Having a staff forum, in the true sense of what having a forum means, that voices are heard and open discussion is had and solutions are come to, is what the workers who are part of the SLD feel is a necessary step for the administration to begin showing workers the respect they deserve,” stated Slichter. “That was from the outset, pretty much the first goal of the SLD.”
With this goal partially achieved, SLD is now focusing on making sure the forum itself is fair for the workers.
“The forum is being presented to us by the administration,” said Slichter. “The fact that it is being presented, and designed by the same administration that did not hold a forum for five years and that has shown a huge lack of respect for the workers doesn’t do a lot in convincing me that this will be a true ‘forum.’ The fact that they are the ones deciding what the forum looks like, and not workers, does not align with the goals of the student labor dialogue.”
SLD hopes to have the forum be open for any and all students who wish to become more active participants.
Student-Labor Dialogue at Vassar is meant to create a strong and continuous discussion and relationship between not only students and workers, but also administrators. “Historically, this type of treatment is not new from Vassar, nor is solidarity between workers and students and across workplaces,” said Blum. “But they haven’t sustained that. There have been instances of student solidarity in the past and things have flamed up really fast and then sort of died away. We are trying to build something that will be a little longer lasting.”
When asked to comment on the pamphlet, Cappy provided an emailed statement: “I take the students concerns seriously and want to carefully read their pamphlet.”