Students rally for Bennington College workers
BENNINGTON — More than 100 students, community members and unionized employees at Bennington College jammed a performance studio Wednesday at the school's Visual and Performing Arts Center to register sometimes emotional, often loud support for the workers.
"This is a powerful evening," said former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington, a guest speaker during the 90-minute rally and speak-out event. "I just stand in awe of your courage for speaking your truth."
About 50 members of the Service Employees International Union are preparing for what they believe will be tough negotiations with the administration over a new contract. Key issues, the workers said, include pay rates that often are below what is considered a livable wage in Vermont and inadequate health care and other benefits.
Several who spoke stressed how their benefits in particular have eroded with each new contract in recent years because of higher insurance deductibles, higher premiums and other costs.
About a dozen employees of the Dining Services, Buildings and Grounds and Housekeeping departments spoke during the meeting, describing working conditions at the elite private college and their experiences trying to make ends meet, especially when hit by thousands in medical costs that are not covered by insurance.
"When I started here, we paid nothing for health care," one worker said, but rising deductibles now wipe out most of the small raises received from recent contracts.
The insurance deductible is now $5,000, workers said, which one man described as "a killer."
Another said he is hit by annual medical tests for his wife, and those costs routinely take all year to make up.
A tradesman said Bennington College likes to hire master carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other skilled employees, in part so the college can reduce the number of outside contractors needed for smaller campus projects.
At the same time, he said, the pay for such workers is only in the middle range of what they could earn in the private sector. When the benefits were better, he said, that tradeoff seemed acceptable, but that's no longer the case.
Beyond health insurance costs, one man said, when he had to take three weeks off for health issues, the short-term disability insurance he has would only provide a little over $100 a week, forcing him to use up all his vacation time.
A stressful time
Deborah LaFlamme, a 24-year employee and SEIU member who is now retired, said negotiations are "a stressful time" for the non-faculty, non-management employees.
"It is always a struggle," she said. "I have seen a lot of contracts, and none of them are easy."
She and other workers said that "without your group [students], this would be a lot harder."
"I have never seen anything like what I am seeing tonight," another longtime employee told the group. "I want to applaud all the students for backing us."
Student Union member Sarah Fadem recalled how in 2015 students rallied for the union, staging protests involving several hundred students. In one eight-hour protest, she said, chanting students massed around the building where contract talks were in progress.
Even after those talks were moved away from a room with windows, LaFlamme said, "we all knew the students were there and supporting us."
Employees credited student support in the SEIU negotiating a better than expected multi-year contract that year.
"I know for a fact that we wouldn't have done as well as we did without all of the support from the students," LaFlamme said of the prior negotiations.
The Student Union and SEIU said the rally launched a Livable Wage and Adequate Healthcare Campaign for 2019. Fadem said other events, along with letters to the editor and social media posts on the issues will follow.
Fadem said that despite a request, the administration has not specified dates for the talks, which she said students would like to see begin before they leave for summer break. In 2015, the talks concluded in the fall.
"No one from the administration was at the meeting so we cannot comment on how it went or what happened," college Media Relations and Public Affairs Director Alex Dery Snider said Thursday.
She added, "I can say the college values the contributions of all community members. We are looking forward to sitting down with union representatives later this spring to get to a mutually agreeable contract."
Employees who spoke during the event Wednesday described the affection they feel toward the students developed through their daily interactions on campus "with young people from all over the world."
"If it wasn't for the students, I wouldn't have stayed here," said a 30-year employee, "because I've met so many amazing kids over the years."
Another called the students "a real perk for this job."
That is an unofficial benefit, they said, particularly when pay at a college is typically lower than they might find in the private sector.
A woman commented that when she is asked how many children she has, she often responds, "Oh, usually about 108 every year."
Workers also spoke of having to sometimes work two jobs, of struggling to pay mounting medical bills or help their children pay for college, and finally trying to save money for a decent retirement.
In general, the union employees painted a grim picture of workers in certain jobs at the elite institution struggling amid an atmosphere of wealth, leaning at the highest level and the promise of successful lives for the Bennington students.
Morris, who spoke during the end of the event, thanked all those "who told your truth and are pressing for real change."
The effort "is really difficult and emotional work," she said, "that we each must carry to bring about equality — not just as a catch phrase, or a hashtag, or a slogan or meme, but to create a systemic, seismic shift that has to happen."
On the Bennington campus, as in society, "we need to move from protest to power," Morris said, advocating for a "society where communities work in true collaboration, as peers, to build that power through numbers."
A chance for a prestigious college degree "is not something that is available to everyone," Morris said, and an education is something that "is not merely about academics" but also about "global citizenship."
She also called on the college and the school's donors, who write "those massive checks, checks for a million dollars or more," not to overlook those who cook, clean and "maintain this beautiful campus."
Everyone should focus, she said, on "inequality and the wealth gap that we are talking about here today," and "the dichotomy of our economy that maintains a service class and devalues the work of those who are trapped into what becomes an invisible work force."
She praised the students for recognizing those inequalities and for voicing support for the union and the employees.
Noting that "many small colleges in Vermont" are struggling financially, Morris added that the administration should strive to raise funding not only for the campus and the educational programs but also "for the people that make it happen."
She said the struggle on campus for a higher minimum wage and adequate benefits is reflective of those playing out at the Statehouse today over proposed legislation.
In addition to the students — many of whom wore purple T-shirts in support of the union — members of Rights and Democracy-Bennington and Climate Action of Bennington also attended the rally.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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