By Zeke Perkins, student at Bard College
For twenty years, the housekeeping staff at Bard College were outsourced. Now they aren’t. As of January 2012, the housekeepers were hired directly with all Bard benefits: affordable health care, use of campus facilities and, most importantly, tuition exchange for them and their children. This came after a three-year student worker campaign. Here’s how we did it.
It started in the fall of 2009, when the housekeepers requested support from the organization of which I am a part, called the Student Labor Dialogue (SLD). Aramark Corporation, which was then employing Bard housekeepers, asked these workers, who were making eleven dollars an hour, to pay more than $800 a month for family healthcare. Housekeepers in the SLD shared their stories of having to choose between putting food on their tables and providing healthcare for their children. In response, we organized for a number of tactics including rallies, petition drives, and even a “wait-in” for healthcare. Our message was simple: Fire Aramark, take the profits they make off the college and give the workers affordable health care.
It took a year of struggle to get a contract with affordable healthcare but, in the end, we got it. Days after one of our largest rallies, the college caved into the pressure and agreed to pay the difference for healthcare to Aramark though they still refused to consider removing them from campus. Through our campaign with the contract, though, it became clear that certain members of the administration were sympathetic to insourcing, especially after we continually exposed Aramark’s mismanagement of the cleaning at the college.
The next year we came back strong and even though we had won a fair contract we didn’t stop the pressure. We knew that without the housekeepers hired directly we would have to face the same profit-hungry inhumane corporate negotiating team of Aramark in three years. So we continued meeting with the Vice President of Bard, who was slowly coming to our side of the argument, and leveraging pressure through the student body, Bard parents, and even alumni. In fall 2011, Bard announced that it would fire Aramark but said that it had not decided whether it was insourcing or finding another subcontractor. In our meetings with administrators, it became clear that they were leaning towards another subcontractor. With no time to lose we put together our largest rally yet, around 100 students, and marched to the administrative building. During our rally the Vice President of Bard came out and let us know that he had reconsidered his original position and was now planning on insourcing. A month later the agreement was finalized and the workers were hired directly.
I can still remember when I received a call from John Madlem, an activist housekeeper integral to the insourcing campaign, after the win. If it weren’t for the work that the students have done, he said, my son never would have had the chance to go to college. Returning to school after the winter break, it was clear to me how important benefits like the tuition exchange are for housekeepers at Bard, because it gives their children the opportunity to attend a four-year college rarely afforded to the child of someone who pushes a broom.
My word of advice for students around the country fighting privatization and leading insourcing campaigns is never to believe that insourcing is impossible or economically unviable. I can’t count the number of times I have been told there is no way to raise funds for workers or that there simply isn’t any money. When pressure is leveraged strategically and consistently, money ceases to be an issue. For that reason, never engage in economic and administrative arguments because that’s what they do. What we do is talk about human beings who provide services that make our schools run. And we are right so we win.
Update: This year we are fighting to make health care affordable for all Bard campus workers, networking with other colleges in the area to promote student-labor groups like the SLD, and fighting the unjust firings of five housekeepers.