After two failed attempts in the past 15 years, Vassar’s Safety and Security officers have successfully formed a union and have ratified a contract. The officers have made several attempts to organize a comprehensive union in the past but haven’t been successful. However, In May 2014, organizing officers were certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to be represented by the Bard College Safety and Security Officers Union which changed its name to the Hudson Valley Safety and Security Officers Union in July 2014.After this step, negotiations for a contract began in September 2014 and the union ratified a tentative agreement on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015. The union was initially formed by security officer, Zakiyyah Salahuddin who is now Chair of the union, alongside Vice Chair Dan Elliot and Chief Steward Tim Evans.
Until this point, the Safety and Security department was the only department without a union.
Dan Elliot spoke about the motivation behind forming the union and the feelings among many of the college’s security workers. “We wanted to be treated fairly and the administration was ignoring requests for staffing, we felt we weren’t being respected and wanted to form something so we a recourse,” he said.
Although the contract has not yet been made public, some of the terms of the four year contract included a 13.5 percent increase rate in salary within the next four years and a freeze in the contribution rate toward health care.
The contract also discussed two important concerns that the security officers had: staffing and training. There are currently 16 full-time officers, four part-time officers and four sergeants employed. In 2009, the college had 26 full time officers.
According to Vice President for Finance and Administration Bob Walton, there were four retiree’s and three non-retiree separations during 2014, causing the department to be short staffed. The department is now planning on hiring two more officers.
Despite what some might think are large numbers for security workers, the workers don’t always feel as if they have enough people to get their jobs done. Elliot remarked on the problem with understaffing. He reflected, “It not only puts our lives in jeopardy but the students as well.”
Along with staffing, the union has facilitated conversations with the Administration regarding scheduling.
Scheduling will now be more flexible and assigned by seniority in a “pick and post” process in which the most senior officers will be able to pick their shifts first.
The administration has also agreed to provide diversity and inclusion training to all officers, a service that has come to the forefront of conversaitons on campus about racial profiling, and something that the officers had requested in the past.
Elliot was adamant about the great work that Vassar’s Student Labor Dialogue (SLD) has done in helping to organize and promote the union. One student from the SLD spoke about SLD’s interest in getting involved. “We got involved in the security officers’ unionization drive because we support workers at Vassar who are building power to fight back against mistreatment and exploitation at the hands of management and supervisors,” they said.
The student continued, “Officers were sick and tired of getting abused by management, and they decided to do something about it.”
The student from SLD went on to discuss some of the most rewarding and exciting aspects of the process. They explained, “One of the things that really revealed itself throughout that whole process is the need for the union to take an active stance against racism and racial profiling.”
The student continued, “There’s a whole lot of work that still needs to be done for the union to really take that active stance, but one of the most exciting things that happened during the contract fight was the union forcing the college to agree to provide anti-racism trainings to the officers.”
The release of the Margolis Healy report regarding the existence and prevalence of racial profiling on campus by Vassar security sparked immense protest and heated debate on campus earlier this year, the effects of which were felt significantly within the Safety and Security Department of the College.
The aforementioned student from SLD elaborated on friction between the administration and the department. “The administration hadn’t held a training in almost five years, and despite all the promises they made after the racial profiling incident in front of the library last spring, the administration was still refusing to guarantee in writing that they would start that practice,” they said.
The student continued, “It wasn’t until union leadership spoke out publicly and essentially forced the administration that they agreed to a contract clause guaranteeing it. It was exciting to see how the union could actually hold the administration accountable to promises that they didn’t want to keep.”
Looking toward the future, the student remarked, “Even now, [Associate Director of the Department of Safety and Security] Kim Squillace just fired a newly-hired officer basically in retaliation for sticking up for himself against racism he encountered within the department.
The student went on to say, “The Administration put together this new hiring committee to hire more conscious guards, but Kim is firing the people they hire. The union is trying to get him reinstated, and I think that’s another kind of place where the union can make the Vassar community stronger by holding management accountable while it improves the lives of its members by winning protection and material gains. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but that’s the kind of thing I’m hoping to see more of in the future.”
Walton, who spoke on behalf of the Administration, later remarked, “I anticipate an initial formative relationship between the administration and the union which will take time to develop since this is a first contract with this union and these union representatives. The other unions have been present on campus as early as the late 1960’s and it’s takes time for things to settle into a normal routine. Both the administration and the union leadership are optimistic of the future.”
He went on, concluding, “The Administration is very pleased to have a contract and will do our best to implement this contract fairly and equitably. We will continue to try to work through issues as they arise with the union. The Administration is very focused in the search for a new Director. That effort is being led by the Dean of the College, Chris Roellke.”