Raising Costs, Raising Fists

the fight for healthcare and workers' rights in Prov city

by by Samuel Adler-Bell

Last Thursday, more than 200 Brown Dining Service (BDS) workers, Providence union members, and students gathered before the steps of University Hall on Brown’s Main Green. The emcee’s amplified call, “Healthcare!” rang in the air as straining voices united to belt the monosyllabic response, “Now!”

“123,000 of our neighbors in this state lack healthcare,” said Brian Hull of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, addressing the protesters, “premiums are rising three times as fast as wages, and someone in American dies every half an hour because they lack healthcare.”

Talking talks, walking walks
In contract negotiations that began three weeks ago, Brown proposed imposing a sizeable increase in healthcare costs for BDS workers. Under the current contract, which expires on October 12th, every BDS worker contributes six percent of his or her paycheck to health insurance payments. Brown wants to replace this flat rate with a sliding scale by which each worker’s contribution would depend on his or her wage. In this new system, the highest paid workers would give up as much as 16 percent of their paychecks for healthcare, and many workers would see their payments double.

Because BDS wages have failed to keep pace with inflation and the rising cost of living in Rhode Island, the increased healthcare burden would force workers like Claudia Rojas, whose 14-year-old daughter has asthma, “to make difficult choices that no mother wants to make” about how to spend a paycheck already spread too thin.

Joseph Sarno, Brown’s director of labor relations, justified the increased payments in a recent Brown Daily Herald article with reference to “the financial climate” and the need for all members of the Brown community to “work together” in these hard times. The authenticity of Sarno’s trepidation over Brown’s financial straits, however, was undermined by the headline printed only a too-ironic-to-be-altogether-unintentional column’s width away: “Tuition surplus fast-tracks Faunce.”

For Roxanna Rivera of SEIU (Service Employee International Union) Local 615 and the workers she represents, a question of basic fairness transcends any petty quibbling over the endowment. “We have to ask: is it fair for Brown to make healthcare unaffordable to some of its lowest-paid employees while administrators get six-figure salaries and spend $65 million on new buildings?”

While speaking at the rally, State Rep. and friend of labor, David Segal, underlined this same duplicity on the University’s part by beginning his speech with a November 2000 quote from Brown’s President Ruth Simmons. “I was recently asked whether universities should teach values,” Simmons said. “My response was that universities, whether implicitly or otherwise, always, always teach values. They teach values in the way they hire and treat employees.”

What do we do? Stand up, fight back!
Identifying the hypocrisy of those in power—a skill encouraged in most humanities classes at Brown—is neither a novel nor particularly difficult task. For students, interrogating the extent to which the University’s policies reflect its propagated image is an exercise in critical thinking, a chance for a ‘gotcha!’ moment with an authority we aren’t entirely sure how to rebel against. But for workers, exploitation is exploitation, whether or not it’s concealed behind a progressive façade. For them, Brown’s duplicity may have fueled their anger, but the prospect of an unaffordable healthcare plan was the lit match.

“We have to support our union and ourselves,” said Gail McCarthy, whose warm and welcoming smile is a familiar and uplifting sight for students entering the Ratty on her shift. For McCarthy, Brown’s proposed healthcare cost increase would further jeopardize a standard of living that is becoming harder and harder to maintain. In McCarthy’s seven years with BDS, she has seen the cost of living in Rhode Island increase and her wages haven’t kept pace. In the past few years, McCarthy has had two knee replacement surgeries, which she couldn’t have afforded without insurance.

After the rally on Thursday, McCarthy was wearing her characteristic smile, hustling back to the Ratty with her coworkers. Describing the event she said, “It was wonderful to see all the students there and to know they care.”

Sindicatos fuertes, trabajos seguros
Sarno’s “financial climate” rhetoric has become the argument of choice for employers seeking to place the burden of the economic crisis on the backs of working class families. Providence business owners have begun using the recession to justify subcontracting work to outside companies, undermining labor unions that instill community and help workers fight for good wages and benefits.

In June, the owners of the downtown Westin Hotel, the Proccacianti Group, announced their intention to replace almost half the hotel’s union staff with subcontracted outside labor. Like BDS workers at Brown, Westin employees were told subcontracting was necessary to compensate for the financial problems caused by last year’s economic collapse.

Unwilling to give up the wages, benefits, and the dignity afforded by a union job, Westin workers turned to the Providence City Council to put political pressure on the hotel’s owners. After three months of organizing meeting after meeting, a worker retention ordinance to protect hospitality workers in downtown Providence was submitted with co-sponsorship from 12 of the 15 councilpersons. On Thursday, the same day as the BDS rally, the council met to vote on the ordinance.

In a press conference before the meeting, Carmen Castillo, a shop steward of the housekeeping department, described the difference between working without a union and working at the Westin, where the solidarity of her coworkers is a constant source of strength and protection. “It was a struggle to keep my house going and raise my three daughters alone,” Castillo said, recalling her first experiences as a Dominican immigrant in Rhode Island.

Her first job in the US earned her $4 an hour—deadening factory work she didn’t care about. But when she was hired at the Westin 15 years ago, she found a living wage and a community of powerful Latina women in the housekeeping department. Due in large part to Carmen Castillo’s tough leadership, housekeeping has a reputation as the most militant department in the hotel, always ready and willing to storm a disrespectful manager’s office.

For Castillo, a decade and a half with the Westin and Unite Here Local 217, the hotel workers’ union in Providence, has paid off. “Thanks to my job, my first daughter has already graduated from university,” she told the
gathering outside the city council’s chambers, “Thanks to my job, I own a home.”

The English translation of Carmen’s speech, which she articulately delivered in her native Spanish, was drowned out by the exuberant applause of the Westin community and a rapidly swelling and accelerating chorus of “Sí se puede!”

Later that evening, the counsel voted unanimously in favor of the hospitality worker protection ordinance. Councilman Luis Aponte spoke eloquently about the council’s obligation to “take back” from Providence
business owners, in whose interest the council usually operates, but who increasingly neglect the working families of Providence. John Lombardi congratulated himself and the council for “standing up for the little people for once.” And even Cliff Wood of Ward Two, one of only three non-cosponsors, muttered a passively defiant “yay” from the corner of the chamber where he was seated, slumped low in his chair like an insolent child.

Tensions over turf at the national level between SEIU and Unite Here were forgotten last Thursday as food service and hotel workers united to support each other’s causes. They did so in the spirit of solidarity and in the interest of fighting to maintain a living standard for working families in Providence that has been hacked away by anti-union and anti-immigrant sentiment.

“We can’t just give in like they expect us to,” SEIU’s Rivera said about Brown’s healthcare proposal. “If service workers at Brown University can’t expect affordable health insurance, where can they?”

Rivera stressed that the BDS negotiations don’t occur in a vacuum. “They set a standard for the quality of living all workers can expect from their job,” and she added, “What happens at the bargaining table always affects politics and vice versa.”

Local 217’s ordinance sets a precedent for what cities and workers can do to prevent union busting tactics. The outcome of the BDS negotiations will impact national debate about healthcare. And preserving a decent standard of living for working families in Rhode Island depends on the support of both the Providence and Brown communities.

SAMUEL ADLER-BELL B’12 is in labor.