Adjunct faculty and staff at Bates College in Lewiston have announced that they are attempting to unionize, citing low pay, poor working conditions and declining staff retention at the private liberal arts college as their reasons for organizing.
Staff announced on Monday that “a strong majority of contingent faculty” filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board over the weekend. If the union drive succeeds, faculty and non-managerial staff will become a chapter of the Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989 (which also represents Beacon staff), forming the Bates Educators and Staff Organization (BESO).
“Over the past year, too many of our coworkers have left due to dissatisfaction, low pay, and poor working conditions at the College,” a statement by Bates staff reads. “Losing so much talent and expertise has added more work for those of us who remain, diminishing our capacity to provide quality learning and living conditions for our students. By forming our union, we establish a means to improve these conditions and therefore protect the Bates we all know and love.”
Staff are attempting to organize Bates “wall-to-wall,” meaning any worker who is not management, tenure-track faculty, or a campus safety officer is eligible to join the union.
“There has always been a blend of both faculty and staff sharing their concerns right from the very start, even when it was a really small group,” said Olivia Orr, who has worked for Bates as a web designer for three years. “We plan to continue to work together because we share the common goal, which is improving conditions for everyone.”
Orr said talks among staff about unionizing began prior to the pandemic but really began to gain steam last summer. Perhaps in response to those discussions, Bates administrators announced last week that they are raising the college’s minimum wage to $15.50 an hour — up from $13.75 an hour. Orr said the raise is an encouraging sign that management is listening to staff and students, but she believes the college can do better. Bowdoin College in Brunswick is currently paying a minimum wage of more than $17 an hour.
“I’m really happy to see that increase. But I also think it’s 2021, it’s still a pandemic, and I don’t think that $15.50 an hour is still livable for a lot of people,” Orr said. “A lot of our staff are doing manual labor. They didn’t have a choice about working from home, they are putting their health on the line. The campus would not operate without these folks.”
Organizers say a union will help the college to advance its stated diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. In response to the racial justice protests that swept the country in 2020, Bates president Clayton Spencer condemned police brutality and affirmed the college’s commitment to antiracism. But more than 500 students signed a letter saying they found the college’s response inadequate. Since then, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that three staff members hired to lead racial-equity work have left Bates after less than a year in their roles. Noelle Chaddock, Bates vice president of equity and inclusion, quit last summer.
“For me, as a person of color, you have to wonder why is this happening?” Orr asked. “Why are we not having conversations about why this is an uncomfortable place for many folks of color?” Orr asked. “That’s not fair to the students. They come here expecting to be supported and they are seeing staff change year after year. That can’t be a good feeling.”
Prior to the public announcement, organizers had already coordinated to send a petition from staff members urging Spencer to stay neutral during the upcoming union election. It is not uncommon for employers, including in Maine, to hire firms that specialize in countering union drives.
Bates organizers hope that will not be the case during their union election.
“Alarmingly, some of our co-workers have already reported facing pushback from the administration: increased workplace surveillance and an atmosphere of fear, particularly in departments where we are most undercompensated and vulnerable,” a statement by the organizers reads. “We call upon the Bates administration to refrain from any further attempts to influence our choices.”
Spencer’s office did not respond to Beacon’s request for comment on the allegation of attempting to influence staff.
Organizers say they are heartened by the solidarity they have been shown by students. On Monday, after the union drive was announced, students placed over 1,500 signs on campus urging students to support the union drive. “Educators & Staff: Students Support Your Union!” the signs read.
“We’re super excited this morning to see that students had put up flyers and had chalked the campus overnight,” Orr said.
Maine House leaders also issued statements of support following the announcement.
“Lewiston has a long history of labor organizing going back to Maine workers fighting for better conditions in the textile mills. Today, Bates College employees are making the choice to form a collective voice to advocate for themselves and students,” House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) said. “All workers should have the right to make their choice free from intimidation.”
Orr said she is optimistic the level of support that has already been shown will help yield a successful union vote.
“I do think that there’s an energy in the air right now. There’s been a lot of union organizing over the past year, nationwide and in Maine,” she said. “You know, it’s a pandemic and we’re talking about racism, we’re talking about wages and labor, and we’re talking about prioritizing our physical and mental health. It feels like those things are all colliding in this perfect storm at this moment.”
She added, “I do feel hopeful in the coming weeks that we’ll continue to have conversations with staff who are interested in signing on and learning more and hopefully getting involved,” she said.
Author: Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Maine Beacon, October 5, 2021, https://mainebeacon.com/bates-college-staff-want-to-unionize-due-to-low-pay-and-high-turnover/