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Faculty, students show support at picket line as RISD strike continues

Admitted students program moved online, parties met Wednesday afternoon, will meet again Thursday

<p>According to Paul Soulellis, graphic design department head, “many faculty are choosing to go remote or hold classes off campus in solidarity with the workers.”</p>

According to Paul Soulellis, graphic design department head, “many faculty are choosing to go remote or hold classes off campus in solidarity with the workers.”

Rhode Island School of Design faculty, staff and students joined picketing custodians, groundskeepers and movers in the Teamsters Local 251 union Wednesday in the largest showing of in-person support yet for an indefinite strike that began April 3.

Facilities workers launched the strike over continued disagreements during contract negotiations between the union and the school concerning wages, Local 251 Business Agent Tony Suazo previously told The Herald.

RISD’s Full-Time Faculty Association — the union representing RISD’s full-time faculty — invited its members to “gather in support and celebration of our striking coworkers” in a Saturday email reviewed by The Herald.

Faculty from “every single department” participated in the demonstration, according to Chris Bardt, professor of architecture and interim president of the Full-Time Faculty Association.


RISD administrators met with union representatives Wednesday afternoon and plan to do so again Thursday, Danielle Mancuso, a spokesperson for RISD, wrote in an email to The Herald.

“We appreciate the dialogue that occurred (Wednesday) as this is the type of discussion we’ve been hoping for in order to bring this matter to a successful conclusion,” she wrote. “Both parties have agreed to meet tomorrow.”

Suazo confirmed the meeting and plans for a Thursday meeting in an interview with The Herald.

Despite these developments, the ongoing strike has led RISD to move Friday’s Admitted Students Day online. The shift was due to the “impact” of the strike, wrote RISD Director of Admissions Michael Cameron in an email sent to newly admitted students scheduled to visit. “Please know this decision was not made lightly,” he wrote.

RISD students had planned for a Friday walkout during Admitted Students Day, according to social media posts and communications between student organizers reviewed by The Herald.

Faculty have also changed class plans in response to the strike. Many instructors are choosing to hold classes off campus or outside academic buildings in solidarity with striking workers, according to Graphic Design Department Head Paul Soulellis and emails and social media posts reviewed by The Herald.

Tycho Horan, critic in Graphic Design, held their experimental publishing class outdoors, where students made posters in support of the demonstration. “We brought all of our own resources because we don't want to use any of the facilities while the facilities workers aren't paid,” she said.

Not crossing the picket line is “a sign of respect for the idea of unified voices and collective action when single voices can't be heard as well,” said Amy Kravitz, head of RISD’s film, animation and video department.

Among faculty, there has been “overwhelming” support for the strike, according to Soulellis.

“Seeing the faculty support us means the world to us,” Regina Santos, a RISD custodian, wrote in a message to The Herald. “The solidarity is real. We feel that we are not alone when it comes to fighting for what is right, for fair wages. We love our jobs and all we ask is to be recognized for it, and continue doing what we love to do.”


“We have each other's back. That's the important part. We look after each other,” said Kelly Murphy, a senior critic in Illustration, in an interview at the picket line. “The administration has to realize that too.”

The Providence City Council shared a statement on Instagram expressing their “support and solidarity” with RISD facilities workers and urged the school to “come to the table in good faith and reach an agreement with the striking workers.”

“We ask that the lowest paid workers in the university, many of whom are Providence residents, be recognized and compensated fairly for their part in (RISD’s) institutional success,” the statement reads.

Faculty and staff also expressed frustration with the school’s unwillingness to meet the union’s demands and a perceived lack of transparency around the negotiation process. Faculty have been “kept in the dark,” Horan said.

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“Our community deserves to know more,” Soulellis said.

“We want this to end,” Bardt said. “We're kind of in shock that the administration has its head in the sand about this. This is damaging the school's reputation, it’s damaging the trust in the community.”

In an email to the RISD community, RISD President Crystal Williams shared an update on the negotiation timeline to address “critiques and requests for more transparency.” The update aims to address “accusations” that RISD has been “unwilling to negotiate in good faith” and also highlights details of union contract proposals and RISD’s “last and final” offer.

“RISD has had a strong and successful track record of coming to non-disruptive, successful agreements with the other eight unions on campus,” the update reads.

But representatives of other RISD unions told The Herald that negotiations have historically been hostile.

“The college’s policy is that union negotiations are adversarial, which means that their job is to beat us down as low as possible,” said Tim Sandiford, president of the Academic Support Association, which is represented by the National Education Association of Rhode Island.

“Their sole goal is to provide us with the least amount of benefits, the least amount of protections and the lowest wage they can possibly get away with,” he added.

“This pattern of bad faith bargaining goes back, at this point, more than 10 years,” said Pete Gingras, a business agent for NEARI, which represents five of the nine unions on RISD’s campus. “All the unions on campus have had the same problems.”

When asked for comment, Mancuso referred The Herald to another statement that did not address claims about the school’s bargaining strategy.

Gingras and Sandiford pointed to contract negotiations last fall between RISD and the ASA when an agreement was reached shortly before a threatened ASA strike was set to begin, according to emails reviewed by The Herald.

Gingras added that, in his experience, effective negotiation with RISD “requires collective action.”

Sam Levine

Sam Levine is a University News editor from Brooklyn, New York overseeing the staff and student labor and on-campus activism beats. He is a junior concentrating in International and Public Affairs.

Ashley Cai

Ashley Cai is a Senior Staff Writer from Los Altos, California covering the staff and student labor beat. She is a Brown-RISD Dual Degree studying computer science, IAPA and graphic design. She is also a member of The Herald's Tech Team.

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