The Student Labor Dialogue (SLD) is a collective of students and workers organizing in solidarity. There is an idea of the “Vassar Community,” a term which students frequently encounter, that conveys itself as a complete representation of the people that comprise Vassar College. But in practice, this “community” often excludes a vital group: Vassar’s employees. Instead, unionized and non-unionized staff and workers of the College have been made to bear the brunt of the college’s neoliberal strategy of cutting costs in the aftermath of the oft-evoked “financial crisis.” Layoffs, spontaneous schedule changes, violations of union contracts and diminishing avenues of communication are part of a broad devalorization of workers and workers’ rights at Vassar. Custodial staff, dining staff, Buildings and Grounds workers, administrative assistants, security officers; their work is at the core of this institution and while the rhetoric that surrounds student existence at Vassar defers their importance, for people who earn a living here there is much more at stake.
The Student Labor Dialogue is committed to resisting the turn towards corporatization within the College’s culture and policy. A corporation by nature is an organization that thinks only in terms of profit and loss, rarely in terms of those who compose it. When Vassar’s vision and daily mechanics are guided by corporate tactics, it comes at the cost of justice in our community. The SLD hears over and over again that workers fear voicing their opinions and that criticism of the Administration leads to retribution. What we address in our collective organizing is a pragmatic issue. As more workers are laid off, the amount of work to be done does not decrease. In fact, the opposite is true as the last fifteen years shows an increase in admitted students and an increase in the number of buildings needing to be serviced. Furthermore, people who feel appreciated and are allowed to take satisfaction in their work do a better job. All of us on this campus comprise an interrelated group working towards the same goals of facilitating teaching and learning. However, when any of us in this community are treated with disrespect we are all implicated. As students, do we want to be in an environment where the people who work here feel pushed to the wall? We believe it is necessary for members of the Vassar community to understand the importance of how these people are being treated.
In 2009, President Catharine Hill held a staff forum, an institutional structure that facilitates communication between the college and its workers. The staff forum is a vital space for intra-institutional dialogue and explanation of college policy, but the Administration made it clear in 2009 that it was not intended as a place for workers to ask questions, express discontent, or raise concerns. What was labeled a “forum” was clearly intended by the Administration to be an “info session” instead. When workers stood up against the college’s announcement of systematic layoffs, President Hill walked out of the forum and has refused to hold one since.
In the past two months, the SLD has been organizing a campaign to re-institute the staff forum and as a result of pressure from both workers and students, the Administration is committed to holding a forum before the end of this term. As of now, the Administration has suggested that three students attend the forum to act as observers; this arbitrary number leads us to ask: what does the Administration risk by making the forum open to all students who care? While workers have shown repeatedly their ability to express and articulate their own concerns, as they did during the last staff forum in 2009, the College, too, has shown its capacity to broadly disempower and silence workers. CWA (Communication Workers of America) and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) union leadership, with the support of their membership, have expressed an outstanding desire for students to be present at the forum.
The importance of student presence is multifaceted. Having students in the room will hold the Administration accountable for the conflicting stories they tell; the College presents an image of community values and progressive education but the reality for workers is very different. This is perpetuated as long as the avenues for dialogue with the Administration are kept separate for workers and students. Student presence at the staff forum is a way of insisting on the importance of transparency, challenging the idea that we can reside in a community with an unwavering ethical core and a simultaneous contradicting neglect of these principles when it comes to its workers.
Additionally, the Administration has repeatedly used the well-being of the student body as an excuse to further an agenda of disciplining labor. When the college attempted to impose sudden schedule changes for Buildings and Grounds workers, demanding that they work weekends, the Administration reasoned that it was for the sake of students, who were inconvenienced by the sights and sounds of grounds maintenance. What is not being considered is how the inconvenience shifted onto workers with families, responsibilities, and concerns outside of their work at Vassar. Similarly, cleaning staff have suffered a schedule change which brings them to work at 5 a.m. with the comfort of dorm residents used as a rationale of justification. As students, we must challenge the very idea that students’ and workers’ interests are at odds. Those of us that live and work on this campus share a united interest, and we must uphold respect, dialogue, and mutual reciprocity as the basis of our community.
We will not be held in conflict, although the College goes to great lengths to separate students and workers. At present Vassar’s successful “150 World Changing Campaign” has earned back the losses from the frequently-invoked “financial crisis.” However, the Administration continues to construct a dichotomy between need-blind admissions versus fair contracts for workers which is predicated on financial stress. This either/or scenario paints a bleak picture for the future of the College and attempts to leverage need-blind financial aid as a moral imperative at the expense of workers’ rights. There is no justification for the enormous discrepancy between the expressed value of giving working class young people a chance to go to Vassar and the continued squeezing of the people who work here. Workers’ interests cannot be de-legitimized; both need-blind admissions and the financial well-being of workers must be held as central imperatives at Vassar. It is not a question of balancing our interests; as the Student Labor Dialogue shows, our interests are shared.
—Jeremy Garza ’14 and Olivia May ’14 are members of the Vassar Student Labor Dialogue.