With Dining Services workers' contract with the University set to expire Monday and negotiations on a new deal ongoing, public demonstrations in support of the workers intensified this week.
On Wednesday, students opposing changes to workers' required contributions to their health-care plans presented a petition to President Ruth Simmons. On Thursday, protesters marched from outside the Sharpe Refectory to put on a show outside J. Walter Wilson, with the University depicted as a giant man-puppet clutching dollar bills in its fists and roaring about the importance of its chief investment officer.
A short time later, administrators presented information about the University's recent endowment losses — nearly $800 million since summer 2008 — to union negotiators and Brown Dining Services workers as part of ongoing negotiations for a new contract.
The increased activity comes as negotiations head into a crucial phase — the current contract's expiration looms at the end of the long weekend. Bargaining sessions are scheduled for Friday, Sunday and Monday in the hopes of reaching an agreement, union officials told The Herald.
It remains unclear whether an agreement can be reached by Monday — and what might happen if the deadline passes without a new pact.
Union officials this week did not rule out the possibility of a strike if weekend negotiations fail to produce an accord, but workers could also work without a contract or agree to temporarily extend the current one to allow bargaining to continue into next week.
Under their current contract, all BDS workers pay 6 percent of their health care premiums. The University has proposed changing this flat rate to a "sliding scale" under which contributions would be contingent on an employee's salary. The proposed system would mean a minimum contribution of 5 percent for the lowest-paid workers and a maximum contribution of 16.5 percent for those near the top of the salary ladder.
Also on the table, according to officials on both sides, is a proposal from the University to adjust retirement benefits for all future hires.
Wages may be still another point of contention, according to Roxana Rivera, the chief negotiator for the Service Employees International Union, Local 615, which represents all of the nearly 200 workers. The union has asked for a 4 percent annual wage increase, she said, but the University, which has yet to respond to the proposal, has not yet ruled out a wage freeze, she added.
Mark Nickel, the University's director of media relations, confirmed to The Herald last week that health care and retirement changes were under discussion, but said he did not know the status of wages in the negotiation.
Focus on the endowment
Led by the Student Labor Alliance, Thursday's protest outside J. Walter Wilson lampooned the University's use of a damaged endowment as an excuse to justify changing BDS workers' health-care plans.
"Why do you want to take away employees' health benefits?" SLA members yelled at the giant puppet, manned by five students. "Why are you still building while you want to take away your employees' health care?"
Demonstrators — some of whom brandished posters reading "We can only rise together" and drawings of Faunce House with a $22 million price tag attached — congregated an hour before the University's presentation about the endowment losses.
The theatrical protest was intended as a "comedic parody" of the University's position, SLA member Will Lambek '10 said Wednesday. It was also meant as a counterpoint to what Lambek said would be a "patronizing" presentation to BDS workers.
Standing among the mass of chanting students were five of the BDS employees on the union's bargaining committee, who were taking a break from negotiations, which all five described as "tough." Rivera, who was also present, said the endowment's condition was frequently mentioned by the University during the talks.
"Management still is holding on to its take-away proposals," Rivera said. "But just because the economy is bad doesn't mean values go out the door."
Beppie Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration, led Thursday's presentation, which drew primarily on information available on a Web site University officials have set up about the financial crisis.
"It went well, and I think there is a greater understanding among all," Huidekoper wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "I will leave it at that."
During the presentation, Rivera told the Herald, she asked how much the University projected it would save if all its proposals — on health care contributions, retirement benefits and wages — were implemented.
Initially, Rivera said, Huidekoper and the management committee said they hadn't calculated an estimate yet. After further questions, Rivera said they described the projected savings as "minimal."
Huidekoper, contacted Thursday evening, declined to comment on Rivera's characterization of the meeting.
"Standards (for) labor negotiations are clear," she wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "The details are to be addressed between the two parties."
The parties are aiming for a "fair and equitable agreement," Director of Labor Relations Joseph Sarno '91, the lead negotiator for Brown, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. He also declined to comment on specific issues being discussed in the negotiations.
"It is our sincere hope and belief that a successor bargaining agreement will be resolved at the bargaining table in a fair and equitable manner," he wrote.
If an agreement is not reached by Monday, Rivera said, the union's options include extending the current contract temporarily or calling for BDS workers to vote on a possible strike.
But union negotiators said they hope to avoid any of those outcomes.
"I think we'll get a contract done," said Valter Soares, a worker at The Gate who is on the bargaining committee. "It's what we want as a union."
Despite their optimism, however, the five workers from the bargaining committee present at Thursday's protest expressed dissatisfaction with the University's proposals, and several said they failed to see the link between the endowment and the proposed changes in health care contributions.
"Food services itself does not depend on the endowment," said Steve Derderian, a cook at the Verney-Woolley Dining Hall. "I've been here 20 years. It's the first time I've felt threatened that I won't be able to afford medical coverage."
A hike in Claudia Rojas' contribution to health care would affect her daughter, who is asthmatic, said Rojas, a worker at the Faculty Club and member of the bargaining committee.
"I need to buy medication," she said. "Being a single mother, it's a big, big issue."
Petitioning the president
The SLA and other students have seized on the health-care issue, which was the focus of a rally last week that drew nearly 200 participants.
The organization deposited 1,155 signatures opposing the proposed health-care changes to Simmons outside her University Hall office on Wednesday. The SLA representatives — who all wore SEIU badges that read "Stronger Together" — said they expected to present the large pile of signatures to Simmons' assistant.
But Simmons herself entered the first-floor lobby to accept the petition from the hands of Jesse Strecker '10.
"I heard you were here so I came out," she said.
"We're going to continue fighting to make sure everyone at Brown has affordable health care," Strecker told her.
"People should have health care, I agree with you," Simmons answered, nodding. She then promised to read the petition and thanked the SLA for their efforts.
After the group exited, Simmons told The Herald that employee satisfaction was her primary concern. "Brown is always trying to provide the best care," she said. "I'm concerned about all emp
While Strecker called Simmons' attitude "respectful," he said he was disappointed with what he described as a lack of response. Conversely, Strecker said, student response has been strong — the 1,000-plus signatures in support of the BDS employees were collected over just four days, he said.
"Pretty much everybody immediately signed," he said. "I don't think it's fair for people not to be able to afford health care because our endowment isn't doing as well as it should."
The debate will continue at the negotiating table this weekend, with both parties aiming for a satisfactory resolution.
"We'll go as late as we need on Monday night to get a contract," Rivera said.