Every day, we depend on campus service workers. They cook our meals, clean our dorms, maintain our grounds, fix our equipment, provide our security, maintain our libraries, and generally keep our university running. In snowstorms, many staff deemed “essential” are still called upon to provide basic services, clearing the paths of snow and debris, while we remain indoors. They often provide a familiar and friendly face when we buy food at late meal or a cup of coffee in Witherspoon cafe. They are essential members of Princeton as an institution and as a community. In short, they make Princeton our home.
Despite the essential nature of service workers on campus, and the appreciation that many students genuinely feel and show toward them, the needs of workers are not adequately addressed by their employer, the University. Emotional sympathy or appreciation cannot substitute the material compensation that workers need to get by.
As a student leftist group concerned about workers’ rights within and beyond campus, we, the Princeton Young Democratic Socialists, have talked with dozens of campus service workers in light of upcoming contract negotiations between the University and the campus service workers’ union, Service Employees Union International Local 175 . We’ve heard some consistent complaints over their conditions emerge over the course of this past year.
Service workers are fundamentally underpaid in light of the rising cost of living in New Jersey. The wages that they receive, while on an hourly rate higher than most other service workers, do not reflect the fact that they live in the fifth most expensive state in the country. Rich Wilder, the vice president of Local 175, talked about how he has worked for the University for nearly 38 years and is still “nowhere near comfortable.” His story is not an uncommon one among the workers with whom we’ve talked.
While the hourly wage for service workers may be higher than average in the state, wages in general have not kept pace with cost of living. Especially since the financial crisis of 2008, many workers with whom we have talked are forced to work multiple jobs to pay their bills. This means that once they leave Princeton, they simply put on another uniform for their second or third job. One of the worker who spoke with has worked two jobs for 20 years, but cannot continue working non-stop now that she is 60 years old.
“We’re not asking to be paid an extraordinary amount of money” Wilder said. “We’re only asking that you help us catch up to the cost of living.”
The university has also relied overly on temporary workers, sometimes for up till a year. Hiring temporary workers is cheaper because the university is not required to give temporary workers same benefits that they give full-time workers. Hiring workers who can be easily fired allows the University to maintain a minimum level of full-time employers, hurting both the unprotected, non-unionized and the union itself, which depends on the membership of full-time workers.
On a related note, the Union has expressed concern over the number of “academic year employees,” rather than full-year workers. Because they are out of work for only two months and are assured work come September, they technically do not qualify for unemployment benefits in that time. We talked to a campus worker who has worked for the University for 18 years and still isn’t full-time, only working for 10 months out of the year. Therefore, they must scramble to make ends meet during those two months without wages. The University could instead use these summer months to the benefit of workers. For example, employees who are otherwise out of work could receive training during this time.
The problems outlined above, and many more, above will be at stake in the upcoming contract negotiations.
Campus workers are in a precarious position where demanding more is met with a response that they could lose what they already have, which they know is not enough. Their problems have existed for years, if not decades, but addressing them requires changing a status quo that favors the employer, the University’s administration.
To help change the status quo as such, students have at times organized to show solidarity in support of workers. In the early 2000s, the now-defunct Workers Rights Organizing Committee ran a campaign that ultimately resulted in an increase of the minimum wage for all campus workers and a reduction in the University’s hiring of temporary workers. Over a decade later, in response to the lack of proper compensation and accommodations for essential workers who worked in the snowstorms last winter, we, the Young Democratic Socialists, organized a rally demanding that the University give back pay for workers and provide them with proper living accommodations the next time they had to spend the night at Princeton. During the snowstorm this past winter, no workers slept in cots in the Frist basement — they were all housed in Nassau Inn, Palmer House, or the Graduate College.
As stated, this summer the Service Employees’ International Union Local 175 will be renegotiating their contract with management, and a variety of issues affecting the livelihood of campus workers will be at stake. In order to leverage our sway as students and show public moral support for our campus workers, the Young Democratic Socialists of Princeton will be organizing a town hall on Wednesday, May 9th at 4 PM on Frist North Lawn to provide a space of solidarity for workers to address the University community, air any grievances, and make their lives more visible to the community.
YDS hopes to demonstrate that students care about and support their efforts to secure better working conditions. Solidarity between student and workers has historically proven impactful as demonstrated by the workers’ rights activism of WROC and our rally last April. Change is possible, but only through collective action. We hope that the student body will turn out on May 9th to demonstrate to the University that the community stands in solidarity with workers.