Op-eds, Opinions

Dolan ’19.5, Triedman ’20: Ratty air conditioning plans need more accountability

By and
Op-Ed Contributors
Thursday, April 26, 2018

On April 23, in an editorial entitled “Ratty renovations a heartening sign,” the Editorial Page Board of The Herald praised the University administration’s recent commitments to address overheating in the Sharpe Refectory. Although the Student Labor Alliance is also cautiously optimistic about the prospect of change in the Ratty, our emphasis falls more on the side of caution than optimism. Our skepticism hinges on two critically important points that have so far been ignored in the response to the Ratty renovations: First, the action taken by the University so far has been misconstrued, leading to a lack of public scrutiny and accountability; and second, without this public accountability and oversight, we cannot be sure that Brown’s promises and material commitments will lead to substantive improvements to working conditions in the Ratty kitchens.

Though they are steps in the right direction, the actions taken so far by the University have been overly celebrated and praised, leading to misunderstandings about progress made in the campaign and ultimately leaving the University unaccountable. For example, one sentence in the opening paragraph of The Herald’s editorial reads, “We applaud the University for taking and making public concrete action to enhance working conditions in the Ratty.” Let us not overstate which actions the University has actually agreed to. The SLA has received written confirmation from the administration that Brown has committed to spending $4 million on revamping the Ratty’s electrical system, expanding temporary cooling systems and short-term fixes for overheating in coming summers and conducting a feasibility study for other “permanent cooling solutions.” The money currently allocated to electrical improvements and the feasibility study does not fund any installation of air conditioning. To be extremely clear, the University has financially and verbally committed to studying the possibility of air conditioning implementation — not to actually installing air conditioning. Further, the administration has only agreed to install air conditioning pending the results of the feasibility study. As part of the announcement that has won them so much praise, administrators have given themselves a legitimate-sounding excuse to use should the cost of respecting workers’ rights to a safe workplace prove to be higher than expected.

The SLA is also skeptical of the University’s dedication to the renovation plan. While The Herald reported that the University has “announced” its plan in the April 13 news article “Sharpe Refectory to gain cooling abilities in 2019,” in reality, the administration has thus far released no statement of its own. Despite the SLA’s urging of the administration to release such a statement — which would allow students to hold the administration accountable to the statement should it stray from it — it has refused to do so. By using The Herald article as a public statement, the administration has shielded itself from public pressure, and placed the author of the article in the unfair position of messenger. Until there has been an official statement from the University that outlines their concrete action steps and the timeline by which they will be implemented, workers and students cannot hold the administration accountable.

In the aftermath of this supposed commitment from the University, the SLA is demanding four things of the administration. First, the administration should make an official statement on behalf of the University — do not use students in The Herald as your shield against accountability. Second, this statement must include a timeline and detailed outline of the action steps taken in both parts of the renovation plan. Third, there must be interim measures taken during the two summers that will pass before potential air conditioning installation. These measures must be taken per the demands of Ratty workers. Fourth, there must be an establishment of an accountability working group composed of administrative members, dining service workers and students. This working group should meet regularly throughout the next several summers and school years to ensure that the University is conducting the feasibility study and both phases in a transparent fashion and following through on its promises.

The Herald’s editorial concludes with the comment, “we hope the University executes the goals outlined in its recent announcement, develops a permanent fix for working conditions in the Ratty and continues to address, in a timely fashion, the concerns of all its employees.” After years of repeatedly asking for air conditioning, it is clear that the concerns of Ratty employees were not addressed in a “timely fashion.” While we are glad that the University has finally acknowledged the need to address overheating in the Ratty, we are concerned about the lack of accountability for these changes. The SLA will continue to pressure the administration until it offers a concrete timeline, presents adequate accountability mechanisms and takes the interim measures that workers need over the next two summers.

Mara Dolan ’19.5 and Hal Triedman ’20 are members of the Student Labor Alliance and can be reached at mara_dolan@brown.edu and harold_triedman@brown.edu, respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.