Housekeepers Nearly Forced out of Long-standing Union

Photo Courtesy of Smith College

Photo Courtesy of Smith College

Mikayla Patel ’22

News Journalist

In the past few weeks, a printed screencap of an anonymous Facebook post criticizing a union change that was proposed by Smith last month has been seen around campus. The post poses questions such as, “if it’s been acknowledged that your work is similar enough to a mans [sic] work and you deserve equal pay ,should [sic] you have to lift and carry 20 more pounds for it?” “Should you have to give up your Seniority Number and go to the bottom of a list primarily made up of men for it?” and “Should you be forced out of a Union that you have been a member of for 32 years just to get paid the same as a Man doing similar work?” finishing with, “Apparently so according to a Womens [sic] Liberal Arts College in Massachusetts.”

The Facebook post caused confusion among many students who were not aware of the issue, as Smith did not address the union change until the post had already circulated.

Following the circulation of this post, Smith came out with a statement addressing the public’s questions which began, “Smith College has been in negotiations with Local 211, which represents the college’s housekeeping staff, about transitioning to membership in Local 263, which represents the facilities staff.”

According to the college, this proposal came to be as a way to meet the requirements of the newly-enacted Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA). Both Local 211 and 263 belong to the larger Service Employees International Union. Smith conducted an audit that found that, over time, “union contract negotiations resulted in pay differences between members of Local 211 and Local 263.” Due to the fact that 211 is mostly made up of women and 263 mostly of men, Smith proposed moving housekeepers in 211 into the custodial Local 263 at the end of the semester in an attempt to equalize their pay.

Their argument for merging the unions was that negotiations would be made easier under one contract rather than two. Housekeepers would be moved into full-year employment and “receive an increase in compensation.” The statement also claimed that an exemption would be made to the union contract that “would help preserve seniority rankings of housekeepers.”

This public statement, however, left a lot to be desired. A Smith housekeeper and longstanding member of 211 who asked to be kept anonymous said that it was inaccurate of the college to claim they were “in negotiations.” Smith met with 211’s legal counsel over spring break, but housekeepers in Local 211 were not aware that union “negotiations” were underway. The union change proposal that the housekeeping staff received in March came with no warning, said the staff member.

The 211 member presented a copy of the original proposal given to housekeeping staff, stating that they would retain seniority only within their job description but otherwise would “be considered new employees and therefore at the bottom of the seniority list,” meaning that if downsizing were to occur, explained by the anonymous staff member, “we would be the first to go.” This was something not clarified in the school’s public statement.

The staff member also said that Local 211 has not asked for full-year positions in a very long time as “many of [the housekeepers] are older now and have grandkids.” Yet, with the new proposal, they would be required to take year-round positions. Local 211 members were also not pleased with the idea of being uprooted from a union for which they have belonged for so many years. “We’ve been in this union for as long as I can remember,” said the anonymous 211 member.

The original contract proposed by Smith also stated that housekeepers would now be expected to “safely lift, carry and move materials up to fifty pounds,” “assist in removal of leaves, ice, snow and other debris […] which includes shoveling, scraping and sanding ramps,” “assist with buffing, stripping and refinishing floors” and “safely climb ladders.” These are duties that housekeeping staff, many of whom have worked at Smith for over 20 years now, have never been expected to perform. All of this would be in addition to working 40 hours per week rather than 20 or 30.

In Smith’s public statement, they responded to the question, “Is it true that housekeepers will now be required to do heavy labor such as snow shoveling?” by simply saying, “No. The college has sent revised job descriptions to the union removing heavy lifting and any new requirements to lift extra weight.” This response ignores the fact that those requirements were included in the original proposal and were not removed until the circulated Facebook post caught the attention of students.

Following the public statement, the attorney hired to represent Local 211 found that 211 and 263 do, in fact, receive comparable wages in accordance with MEPA, even including benefits. On April 2, following the findings of 211’s legal representation, the proposal was dropped entirely. “I think the College should apologize,” said the anonymous 211 member, for all the unnecessary stress and anxiety the ordeal cost housekeeping staff. She said that it was a particularly alarming experience “as a woman at a women’s college” to think that she would be forced out of a union to which she had belonged for upwards of 20 years only to be put at the bottom of a list mostly comprised of men.

Smith has not addressed the issue publicly since the proposal was dropped nor has it apologized to staff or to union members.

Sophian Smithnews