Rhode Island School of Design custodians, groundskeepers and movers in the Teamsters Local 251 union announced to the school that they will hold a 24-hour strike starting Thursday. The action follows disagreements over wage increases in employee contract negotiations that have been ongoing since last June, Local 251 Business Agent Tony Suazo told The Herald.
The strike will be accompanied by a picket line — a protest organized by striking workers outside their workplace — at five locations across RISD’s campus, Suazo said.
Workers initially unionized in February 2022 after voting 52-4 in favor of certifying the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — the country’s fourth-largest labor union — to represent them, The Herald previously reported. They are now in the process of negotiating their first labor contract as unionized employees.
Last November, Local 251 authorized a strike by a 95% margin, allowing them to take action if RISD failed to meet their demands, The Herald previously reported.
The union decided to strike to demand wage increases in employee contracts, according to John Cabral, a RISD grounds caretaker. Wage increases have been “so low for so long,” he said. “A lot of the (workers) here feel underappreciated and undervalued.”
According to Suazo, a vast majority of the RISD workers in the bargaining unit currently make $15 to $18 dollars an hour.
RISD’s facilities staff make far less than those at nearby universities, Cabral said. Brown pays newly hired custodial staff $19.40 an hour and has increased wages every year for the past three years, according to the University’s collective bargaining agreement with United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island, the union that represents facilities management employees.
“Some of these workers could go (work somewhere else) and automatically get a $2 increase,” Suazo said. He added that union representatives brought this up to school administrators in negotiations, but were met with the attitude that “they don't care.”
“Nobody wanted to get to this point,” Cabral said. “But we feel as though this is our only alternative right now.”
According to Danielle Mancuso, associate director of public relations for RISD, the strike “is a tactic to pressure the college into an inequitable agreement.”
The school believes that union leaders “need to negotiate in a meaningful way so that together we can create a contract that fairly compensates our employees for their vital service,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.
“The union has continued to demand benefits and wage increases that go well beyond what RISD considers fiscally responsible and deviates from RISD’s overall compensation philosophy, which seeks to maintain equity across the college,” Mancuso wrote.
But Suazo does not accept this characterization: “For lack of a better term, this is a very rich school crying poverty,” he said.
“The union received RISD’s last and best offer on Feb. 16,” Mancuso wrote. This offer included retroactive payments averaging $2,300 per employee that were contingent on a response from the union by March 1. The union did not respond and instead countered with a proposal on March 18 that included “unreasonable” and “excessive” demands concerning benefits and compensation, she wrote.
While conversations concerning other parts of the contract have gone smoothly, RISD has not met the union’s demands on wages, which is “the only thing that we’ve said that they desperately need to address,” Suazo said.
“I just don't understand why they don't value the lowest-paid people that really keep this place running,” Cabral said. “It's a shame.”
In an open letter to RISD’s administration and board of trustees following the strike authorization last November, over 900 RISD alums, current students, past faculty and non-bargaining unit workers called on the school to “immediately agree to a fair contract” with the Teamsters RISD employees.
In an email to RISD students, VP of Enrollment and Student Affairs Jamie O’Hara wrote that the strike “should not impact your access to RISD buildings, resources or any other element of your RISD experience.”
But several RISD professors have announced that their classes will not be meeting as scheduled Thursday.
In an email to students, George Coffin, an instructor for one of RISD’s “ID-2465-02: Design Principles II” sections, wrote that the class will not be held in person because “some (students) may not feel comfortable crossing the picket line.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the starting wages for newly hired custodial staff at Brown. The article also misidentified the frequency of wage increases for Brown's custodial staff. The Herald regrets this error.
Ashley Cai is a Senior Staff Writer from Los Altos, California covering the staff and student labor beat. She is a third-year Brown-RISD Dual Degree studying computer science, IAPA and graphic design. She is also a member of The Herald's Tech Team.