On Friday, April 14, over a thousand people joined the protests occupying Rhode Island School of Design’s campus in downtown Providence. These strikes, facilitated by custodians, groundskeepers, and movers, began on March 23. Supported by regional union organizers Teamsters Local 251, the strike was still ongoing this Monday. According to Antonio Suazo, a union representative for a plethora of local workers, “a meeting this [Monday] afternoon with the RISD administration could end the strike today, if it goes well.” Teamster Local 251 is a branch of an organization called the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union founded in 1903, operating in the United States and Canada. If the strike succeeds at RISD, the local Teamsters will have helped to organize 134 contracts for worker groups in the Providence area.
Striking workers say that they currently make around $16 per hour, and that after 20 years of employment, they receive a $2 raise. Signs covered the campus, critiquing RISD for paying their board of trustees an average of $200 while the workers that ensure the institution’s functionality make a tiny fraction of that amount. Others addressed the inequality between worker pay and the school’s $81,210 estimated cost of education. One of the many workers on strike stated, “We don’t make enough money to support our families. Nearly all of us have to work two jobs to cover our costs of living.”
At the strike on Monday morning, not a single striking worker was white. One of the other Teamsters representatives, Matthew Maini, noted that roughly 60 percent of the RISD workers receiving these wages are Hispanic, the other 40 percent Portuguese. This wage inequality is a racial issue. In Providence, nonwhite minorities own slightly more than a sixth of the “employment-firms” relative to white owners. Providence is 50 percent white. This, among other factors, is a driving force of the situation seen at RISD, where literally all of the labor-related work is done by minorities.
There are a lot of similarities between the inequalities at RISD and here at Providence College. The majority of workers at PC are minorities, certainly at UG2, only somewhat less so with Sodexo. Union representative Maini said that his wife graduated from PC and that when he “helped to organize a strike (at PC) in 1993, the College administration at the time crushed it. Killed it.”
At least locally, RISD has been the center of attention for a couple of days. Hundreds of RISD students stood in solidarity with strikers over the past weeks; various academic departments have encouraged their students to participate in the strikes, some even facilitating walk-outs from their own classrooms. These departments have pressured the administration in other ways as well. Some sent letters to the college’s administration in a demonstration of support for the workers. The RISD photography department stated: “As faculty, we cannot simply teach students about historical art movements that pursued equity, representation, anti-racism, and the value of dignity of every person while RISD’s administration argues against a $2 cost of living increase for staff.”
A student alliance was formed in support of the strike as well, which has helped to organize student activism and paint the campus with a plethora of artistic posters and signs showing solidarity with the workers.
With this successful strike occurring two miles from campus, PC may need to reassess worker inequality within its own institution. PC has more students, more faculty, and more staff. Unionizing secures higher wages, worker benefits, heightens quality of work, and gives employees a representative to actively fight for their rights and quality of employment. If the RISD workers succeed, they may inspire union organization both at PC and at other schools in the region. On Monday, the scene was powerful. It was ten in the morning, and there were around 25 workers standing on strike. Despite weeks of protest and their already unsustainable costs of living, they shouted for fair pay with bright smiles and an optimistic warmth on their faces.