Students rally to support unionized Bennington College workers

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BENNINGTON — More than 100 students and Bennington College employees rallied outside the administration building Wednesday afternoon to protest the snail-like pace of negotiations toward a new contract for unionized workers.

The crowd heard from several student speakers and employees from different non-faculty departments represented by the Service Employees International Union, who have been working under terms of their old contract, which expired on July 1.

Kaseem Moultrie, the regional SEIU representative, said there are 53 employees in the college's bargaining unit, including the Dining Services, Buildings and Grounds and Housekeeping departments.

Both students and the employees have accused the administration of using delaying tactics since before the last contract expired to slow the talks and wear out employee resolve.

That has included canceling bargaining sessions, which union negotiation team members have to plan for around work schedules and/or child care, and first pressing for a one-year contract extension and later agreeing to a three-year time frame, as well as other revisions to the scope of the talks.

The union also proposed an administration-union committee to research health insurance plans to find the most efficient coverage, but that was rejected, Moultrie said.

"I think we will have to maybe plan some other events, maybe we will have to escalate," he said. "Maybe have some sit-ins on campus, with workers and students, and hopefully with some faculty."

The administration has attempted to divide staff members from faculty members and groups of employees from one another, Moultrie and students said, and they urged solidarity during the negotiations.

Student Karlyn Ellis said prior to the rally that the contract situation is little changed since a town hall style event held by workers, students and community activists in the spring to urge serious talks prior to the expiration of the contract in July.

"I really think we raised student awareness," Ellis said, "but after that I really wish the college bargaining committee had taken into account what we wanted ... We had really high hopes then, and now we are more in the after-stages."

The rally Wednesday was organized by the Student Union at the college, she said, adding, "I would say, for the last year, this has been one of our main projects."

Ellis said one of her roles is to act as liaison to the workers, making sure students are up to date on the state of negotiations and related issues.

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While the student group has other projects, "Right now we are just focusing on worker rights, because it is taking up so much time and energy," she said.

Students involvement in employee contract talks stems from the 2015 talks leading to the multi-year pact that expired, Ellis said.

Those negotiations sparked escalating involvement by students, including protests involving several hundred students, and one eight-hour protest with chanting students massed around the building where contract talks were in progress. Employees at the time credited student support in the SEIU negotiating a better than expected contract that year.

"It was pretty spontaneous and showed a lot of moral support, but with this [rally] we are hoping to have a more progressing campaign," Ellis said. "That is what happened last time, and with this rally we are really trying to invoke that because it really showed a lot of popular support."

Health insurance

During a bargaining session with the administration on Tuesday, Moultrie said, a number of proposals were put forth by the college, but only one concerning health insurance was a major contract point — and that was disappointing.

The offer was primarily for a $2,500 annual deductible for a single person and $5,000 a year for a family, and a 10 percent co-pay provision also was discussed.

Those costs might be bearable for college employees in "a house on the hill with two cars, like the president of the campus," he told those at the rally, but they make health care almost unaffordable for many workers.

If students, workers, faculty and the community show solidarity, he said, "in the next event we are going to be able to effectively shut the college down and tell them, 'you know, our labor is going to be restricted until you hear what we have to say.'"

Wage rates were not part of the proposals discussed Tuesday, Moultrie said, but he added that at one point different percentage raises were offered for some of the worker units, which was rejected. The union is seeking "a living wage" for all its members, he said.

"I just think it is really important that students show up for workers," Ellis said, "because we have a real privilege in being here and being able to study; and the workers make it so that it all goes round, that we are fed, we are taken care of, and we need to turn around and make sure that they are taken care of too."

Sending a response Wednesday on behalf of the administration, college Media Relations and Public Affairs Director Alex Dery Snider said in an email, "We encourage our students to engage on important issues, including by protesting."

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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