During this summer, the Service Employees International (SEIU) Local 200 union, which includes employees in the Retreat, the All Campus Dining Center (ACDC), cleaning services and some of Buildings & Grounds (B&G), negotiated a new contract with Vassar management. Labor goals included retention of health benefits, salary raises and increases in perceived respect for employees. The contract agreed upon and signed by both parties have left members of the negotiation team for SEIU Local 200 pleased at the gains that were made.
This perceived victory comes after unionization and self-advocacy for Vassar staff has been a hot issue for multiple semesters, with workers negotiating new contracts and student groups like the Student/Labor Dialogue (SLD) supporting them through educational efforts and solidarity demonstrations.
One member of the bargaining group was Assistant Chef in the Retreat Jesus Leyva. Leyva is new to the union leadership, leaving the process particularly engaging. He said, “It was a very interesting process…I didn’t know before how to deal with the contract negotiations but I learned first hand that it is tough, very tough, but we did great for workers.”
Among issues highlighted by workers in the past are a lack of summer positions and unfair wages in proportion to the cost of living. Last spring, the SLD highlighted these issues in a pamphlet that quoted many college staff members about their experiences. The SLD described the situation in the pamphlet by saying, “Recently workers have been struggling with wages that don’t meet the standard of living and face a lack of summer employment that stretches many families too thin.”
Vice Chair of Vassar’s local union Cathy Bradford told the SLD this spring, “People have to respect the fact that we have to live. We gave up so much in the last contract. We can’t take another hit.”
Her feelings were echoed by ACDC worker Precious Manning. She explained, “We need the money to support our families. There are lots of bills, and rent is so expensive.” In the face of the rising cost of living, union members at Vassar have had to fight for improvements in their contract. Leyva explained “[Going into the negotiations,] it was a priority to maintain the same health benefits…and we felt that we were behind in raises and we made a lot of sacrifices in the last contract.”
However, SEIU Local 200 had tangible victories in their latest contract agreement. Leyva explained, “I think that under the circumstances we did really good, it was nice, it was in good faith and we gained really good benefits for workers, so I can say we were very successful in the negotiations between union officials and college officials.”
He highlighted that the workers received a raise as part of the new contract, as well as a raise to their pension plans and stability in their health benefits. He said, “It was a really good contract for us.”
Alex Deane ’15 from the Student/Labor Dialogue wrote in an emailed statement, “This [change] is different from years past, when unions have often been forced to give up more than they gained at the bargaining table for the sake of stabilizing the College’s finances.”
She went on to explain, “We’re glad that SEIU has built enough power over the years to win this contract.”
However, some related to the issue still believe that more progress is left to be made on the subject of summer jobs for SEIU Local 200 union. According to the SLD, there is work to be done at Vassar over the summer in terms of maintenance and cleaning, but Vassar contracts outside workers to do those jobs. Deane also wrote that, “As always, there is plenty of work left to be done to enforce the contract, which management often violates with impunity. Additionally, the College is currently in the midst of serious restructuring in all departments on campus, leaving vital staff positions unfilled and forcing workers to take on unmanageable workloads.”
The contract negotiated is for the next four years. In previous years, the contract had only been for three years, and Leyva is pleased with how the agreements for the coming years have panned out after the negotiation process. He is already looking to the future, though. He explained, “The main thing to maintain is to have health benefits, better wages and dignity in the workplace.”
Speaking about the work of the SLD and other students in relation to the union on campus, he said, “[Students are] a great force now, we wouldn’t be here without students, we work for the students and families…they’ve really rallied behind us and they’re doing a lot of hard work, [especially] in trying to maintain ties between workers and students.”
In the meantime, relations remain in flux between the administration and Vassar workers. Security is still in the process of unionization, and greater issues regarding the corporatization and financial environment at Vassar continue. However, students like Deane and others who participate in SLD continue to support unions and workers at Vassar.