William Newman: Pay issue festers for low-wage workers at Smith College in Northampton
Atty Bill Newman in his Northampton office
NORTHAMPTON — On Saturday, June 6, 1981, the lead editorial in the Boston Globe, titled “Women and Mammon at Smith,” excoriated the college for its treatment of its low-paid food service and housekeeping staff. It focused on the fight at that time between those employees and the college over their pension.
And rightfully so.
Smith, for years, had taken the position that the pension was more than adequate, generous even. Under that plan a service staff employee who retired after 30 years would receive a maximum pension of about $135 per month. Few retired long-term service workers received more than $1,100 a year.
The Globe wrote, “Smith is exploiting low-paid employees who cook, clean and see to it that students, faculty and administration can devote all their energies … to the education that [Sophia Smith] determined to be ‘equal to that which was afforded to young men.’” The editorial went on to state, “It is inexcusable that the college that has educated such illustrious alumnae as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, the founders of modern feminism, allowed this situation to develop in the first place. That the college allows it to continue undercuts any high-minded, academic talk about equality for women.”
Fast forward to today. With regard to its treatment of housekeepers and food service workers, mostly women and generally the lowest paid people on the campus, Smith has now allowed another unfairness to fester.
In real terms, those employees are earning less today than they were a decade ago. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to wages, a major issue this year in the now-stalled negotiations between the union — comprised of these Smith employees only — and the college is the cost of health insurance. These employees participate in Smith health insurance plans on the same basis as all other employees, which may sound pretty good until you understand what it means.
Consider the woman whose job it is to take care of the dining room, who has worked at Smith for 11 years and earns $22,000 in her nine-month job (no work during summer is guaranteed, and such work is mostly part time). She ends up paying about half her salary for her contribution to a family health insurance plan. The $175,000-per-year administrator pays the same amount.
Not long ago housekeepers and food service workers at Smith numbered 260. Now there are 132. The Dining Service employees — with less than half the number of people — are serving the same number of students. In addition, they necessarily are working harder because they now prepare many more specialized meals — kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free, among others.
The food service operation, the house system, at Smith, is unique and plays an important part in the college’s marketing campaigns to attract students. At Smith, the cooks prepare all the meals, literally from soup to nuts, providing restaurant-quality food three times a day at every house that serves meals. This is not an assembly-line food operation — it’s anything but that. And these workers not only have great pride as professionals, they are extraordinarily loyal to the college and the students.
In past years and until other obligations intervened, I had assisted these employees in their contract negotiations. When I recently learned how Smith was stonewalling the workers this year, I was saddened, but not surprised. During the last negotiation in which I participated, we could not even agree whether Smith has an obligation to pay a living wage.
Smith boasts an endowment of $1.6 billion, an increase since 2005 of $600 million, and has income of nearly $300 million a year. For Smith not to pay what it clearly can afford is strictly a matter of choice.
Smith has much to be proud of — a dedicated faculty, really smart students, a beautiful campus, an exceptional group of alums — which makes its treatment of its housekeeping and food service workers all the more painful to witness, all the more difficult to reconcile with the mission of the college, highlighted in the Globe’s editorial.
The college’s treatment of its service workers, as that editorial points out, “bolsters arguments made by Phyllis Schlafly and others who contend that the women’s movement is elitist, that it is only concerned with the needs of well-heeled and well-educated women.” The editorial concluded by saying that Sophia Smith “believed that higher education for women would mean ‘their wrongs would be redressed, their wages adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased.’ Her institution has sadly proved her wrong.” The negotiations continue. Still to be answered is whether in 2013, Sophia Smith’s institution, by emulating the corporate model that the rich get richer as workers become poorer, will sadly prove her wrong again.
Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer and host of a WHMP weekday program. His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.