Smith dining workers, housekeepers to get pay hikes with 3-year deal

  • Smith College and the union that represents workers and housekeepers have agreed to a three-year contract. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 11/11/2022 4:55:05 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After six months of negotiation, 139 dining workers and housekeepers at Smith College will receive significant raises now that a new deal has been ratified by the workers union.

The three-year contract, ratified on Wednesday by a vote of 76-1 after negotiations between the college and SEIU Local 211, calls for 6.5% raises in the first year, followed by 4% raises in each of the remaining years. A $500 sign-on bonus is also included.

“Really glad that it’s over and we’ve come to an agreement and can go forward,” said Ilse Barron, SEIU Local 211’s president and a lead chef at the college.

Smith College did not comment on the contract agreement on Friday.

Negotiations in October took a more public position after students led by the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USFLAC) marched to President Kathleen McCartney’s on-campus home, where they gained entry, set up tables in the foyer and listed their demands.

The students, buoyed by over 860 signatures of support, had initially planned to disrupt the board of trustees biannual meeting at the Conference Center, but when that meeting shifted to Zoom, the president’s house, where many of the trustees were staying, became the destination.

“We wanted to put pressure on the trustees, to remind them what community means,” said Smith junior Anna Huber of USFLAC.

Students complain of long lines because of short staffing and shortened mealtimes, all due, says USFLAC, to Smith’s “policy of consolidation and a staff cut in half.” Many of USFLAC’s members have part-time jobs working side by side with who they describe as stressed-out and exhausted workers.

Also among USFLAC’s priorities voiced that Friday is the practice of forcing housekeepers to wear “starchy, demeaning uniforms and undergo embarrassing and unnecessary fittings ...” Huber added that she thinks it’s “disgraceful that Smith is holding out on these improvements. They have the money ... a lot of people are angry over this.”

The occupation lasted about 20 minutes when campus security asked the group’s members and chanting supporters to disperse. The students had no interaction with trustees or with McCartney, who declined an interview.

Now that a deal has been ratified, the student coalition charges that it fails to address “woeful understaffing, affordable healthcare and workers’ autonomy on planning menus.” The group is demanding the hiring of 25 new workers.

Barron said that, on the whole, the new contract is fair, noting that the wage increases are the best the union has ever received. She said the new contract does not address the issue of uniforms, or planning menus, nor does it call for increasing the number of positions. She said talks about the menu and uniform issues will take place in the near future.

Barron said the student support “helps with morale, and staff appreciates it immensely, especially in COVID times. To know that the people you serve see the work you’re doing and the effort you put into it. You don’t see things like this every day — students stepping up for staff in more ways, organized ways, than ever.”

Barron agrees that the dining and housekeeping workforce has been dramatically reduced in the last 12 years.

“One hundred people left when they consolidated and closed down a lot of kitchens,” she said. “We just don’t have enough people to do the work. We’re down to less than half the dining staff we used to have when I started, with 15 percent more students.”

Hiring more staff, she said, was one of the union’s earliest proposals in bargaining talks, “but it was rejected right out of the gate. We were told that (the campus) was fully staffed.”

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