Custodial, movers and groundskeeping staff at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design (RISD) have been on strike since 2 April and their union, which is represented by the Teamsters Local 251, has been gaining support from faculty, students and local politicians. On Friday (14 April), close to 600 people—students, faculty, union members and people from the community—gathered at picket lines on the university’s campus in Providence, Rhode Island.
“There’s about 600 students out here all throughout campus showing solidarity and support for these workers,” Tony Suazo, a business agent for Teamsters Local 251 and a member of the bargaining committee, says. “It’s an unbelievable sight.”
The union, which has been in contract negotiations since June 2022, is prepared to strike “indefinitely” until a fair contract is reached, organisers say. The average wage of a RISD custodian, groundskeeper or mover is $16.74 per hour. The lowest wage is $15.30. The union is fighting for a $20 minimum wage. The union began taking steps to authorise a strike following a breakdown in negotiations with the school’s administration over wage increases in February.
“We walked out because [RISD president] Crystal Williams refuses to increase the wages despite the fact that they have a $660m dollar endowment [and] they don’t pay property tax,” says Matthew Maini, a business agent assigned to Teamsters Local 251. “The president of the university makes $600,000 a year [and] lives rent-free in a $2.3m dollar home. So that’s what led us to the strike.”
On 12 April, RISD students walked out in a show of support for the workers. RISD faculty have also sought creative solutions to keep holding classes without crossing picket lines, such as holding sessions in empty office spaces away from campus.
Several departments across the art school have issued statements in support of the union including architecture, digital and media and sculpture An online petition calling on the administration to meet the union’s demands has received more than 2,900 signatures (the school’s total enrollment is around 2,600 students).
“I’ve been here as a faculty member since 1989,” says Kyna Leski, a professor of architecture at the university. “I started my teaching career here. And I’ve never seen anything like this. What’s motivating people is we really embrace the whole social equity and inclusion mandate that has been written by the faculty, by the students [and] by the administration.”
The Providence City Council issued a statement on Instagram on 11 April expressing their “support and solidarity”. The council also pressed the school’s leaders to “come to the table in good faith and reach an agreement with the striking workers”.
Some progress was made in a bargaining session on 13 April, according to Suazo, who says they are getting closer to what they are after. That baraning session was “very productive”, a spokesperson for the RISD says. “We presented a proposal that is very much in line with what the bargaining unit has expressed would be a fair and reasonable resolution to this negotiation.”
University president Crystal Williams issued a statement following the bargaining session and noted that another session is scheduled for Monday (17 April).
The strike at RISD coincides with another that is ongoing at Rutgers University in New Jersey (home to the highly-ranked Mason Gross School of the Arts). Around 9,000 academic workers there have been on strike since 10 April.