With University Hall as their backdrop and repeated chants of "health care now," nearly 200 students, Brown Dining Services workers and local supporters rallied Thursday afternoon against proposed changes to the workers' health care contribution
The protest, which also took up the cause of national health care reform, came as contract negotiations begin between the University and the union representing BDS workers. The current contract is set to expire Oct. 12.
"Right now, all BDS workers have affordable health care, and Brown wants to change that," said Roxana Rivera, chief negotiator and director of the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which represents all of the roughly 200 Dining Services workers.
Under the current contract, BDS workers each pay 6 percent of their health care premiums. The University, concerned about rapidly rising costs, has proposed replacing the system with a "sliding scale," which would have some workers pay greater premiums according to their salaries.
Protestors said Thursday that the University was attempting to make workers shoulder the burden of the depleted endowment.
"Who lost the money for our endowment? It probably has something to do with the people managing the money, not the people that they're now trying to make pay for the money that was lost," Lindsay Goss GS, a member of Brown's International Socialist Organization, said at the rally. "We're going to have to fight, we're going to have to demand what we want from them."
Despite the protesters' objections to the University's proposal, Joseph Sarno '91, director of labor relations, told The Herald Thursday evening that the "sliding scale" provision is already in place for Brown's non-union faculty and staff.
Sarno characterized the outcry against the sliding scale proposal as a product of misunderstanding, saying it was important to educate workers about the benefits of the proposed system.
Though the economy has soured since the last negotiation with BDS workers in 2006, compensating for endowment losses was not the University's goal in negotiations, Sarno said. Similar health care changes, he noted, were proposed three years ago.
"Whenever you negotiate a contract, the financial climate is a factor," he said. "We're all part of the same community, and we all want to work together."
So far, he said, the negotiators have not formally discussed wage freezes or reducing benefits for senior BDS members.
Workers were skeptical of the University's stance.
At Thursday's rally, Claudia Rojas, lead food service worker at the Faculty Club, stood on the steps of University Hall with her 14-year-old daughter.
She told the crowd about her struggle to support her parents, who suffer from diabetes, and her daughter, who has asthma. Often, she must forgo nights out at the movies and meals at restaurants because she must buy medication, she said.
"I like my job at Brown and get to meet a lot of people and take care of them, but I worry about having to pay more for health care," Rojas said. "It will force me to have to make difficult choices that no mother wants to make and that concern will only grow" if the proposals make their way into the renewed contract.
Like Rojas, many BDS workers used their usual breaks from work to attend the rally, said Rocio Saenz, president of the union's local chapter, prompting cheers from the audience.
Ward 1 City Councilman Seth Yurdin, a Democrat, also addressed the workers. "There was a time when health care was provided as benefits for all full-time workers," Yurdin said. "Now, we're looking at steps back from that."
Workers are forced to make the greatest sacrifice when they are asked to bear the brunt of health insurance costs, said Yurdin, whose ward includes Fox Point and most of Brown's campus.
Brown's Student Labor Alliance, Students for a Democratic Society and Real Food at Brown helped organize the rally, along with Rhode Island Jobs with Justice and local unions.
"What we want to show is basically a show of student support for this issue," Baird Bream, said a spokesman for the Student Labor Alliance. The rally, he said, was meant to spark a dialogue about health care reform and address "an issue of basic human rights."
"It's about the right to be compensated and be supported in the job you take," he said.