On a dark, cold Monday evening nearly a hundred students, faculty member, and union organizers sat together at Barnard in the group’s first sign of solidarity. The struggle, pitting Barnard President Debora Spar against 130 of the lowest paid employees on campus, will determine whether these workers get to maintain basic labor rights ranging from serious cuts to healthcare and maternity leave to controversial proposals like the elimination of sexual harassment claims and child care leave.
Milbank’s Ella Weed Room was filled with near one hundred Emilie Segura, a Barnard junior and leader of the Students Support Barnard Workers, opened the buzzing meeting with a short speech in which she declared, “We will not stand for cuts to basic benefits-healthcare, retirement, wage freezes- and especially since we are a women’s college, no cuts to maternity leave!” After introducing a panel of workers, some of whom had worked at Barnard for two or three decades, UAW Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein explained the crisis from a worker’s perspective.
Workers make less than $35,000 a year or less, an extremely low wage in New York City. These low wages barely cover rent and living costs. Rosenstein maintained these wages were tolerated because the college’s underlying promise was to maintain workers’ benefits. This round of negotiations, however, the administration has stonewalled the workers, offering one painful proposal conveniently after President Obama’s address. Rosenstein spoke of these actions as part of larger anti-labor movement to characterize benefits as illegitimate. She roused the crowd saying, “We didn’t like the benefit cuts at Columbia, and we’re not going to take it at Barnard!”
Rosenstein also reminded the audience of the workers’ successful 1996 strike in which student activism helped pressure a settlement after months of negotiation. In an emotional recollection she spoke of how students unfurled banners at graduation saying, “Anti-Worker Equals Anti-Women”.
An employee of 32 years, Katherine Hendry, managed to wear a smile, joking she had just arrived from her Zumba class. But her face turned serious when addressing the contract crisis. The elderly woman from Georgia could not believe the administration was trying to divide students and workers by claiming tuition would have to be increased in order to pay workers fair wages. She recalled the ‘96 strike, saying, “The things they want back, we fought hard to get. And it’s hard to give up.”
The workers had a different idea of where the funding could come from. When I asked Rosenstein about whether President Spar, raking in around $300,000 a year, had offered to take a cut as a sign of good faith with the workers, she replied with a grin, “No! But I heard she gave up her limo.”
Students plan to continue meeting every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.