Still unsatisfied with Bowdoin’s commitment to its hourly employees, students involved in the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA) kicked off what is likely to be a year of activism with a targeted plea to alumni. After two hours spent during Homecoming Weekend speaking to alumni outside of HarvestFest (colloquially known as “the beer tent”), BLA received signatures from 60 former Bowdoin students pledging that they would not donate to the College until a living wage policy is established for all Bowdoin workers.
This pledge comes on the heels of a BLA petition that was signed by 890 students, employees, parents and alumni last spring, as well as an open letter to President Clayton Rose that was signed by 412 Bowdoin alumni.
The pledge, however, is the first concrete action BLA has taken since wage increases for Bowdoin’s hourly wage workers were announced at the beginning of the academic year. The changes included pay hikes for employees working on the weekends or late at night and early in the morning.
Unsatisfied with these augmentations, BLA member Diego Grossmann ’20 said, “It seems like the administration has had a hard time listening to people, so maybe the only thing they’re going to listen to is the money. And that’s kind of a sad conclusion, but it seems like the only conclusion we can make.”
A Bowdoin alumnus who signed the petition but wished to remain anonymous also noted, “My thought is that a rising tide lifts all boats. If we’re going to be a top-rate college then we need to be progressive in offering benefits to our employees and not just our students.”
However, Rose sharply took issue with the argument that Bowdoin does not provide a competitive and comprehensive wage and benefits package.
“Having done the homework year over year and having done it again this summer, I am completely confident that we are among the very best in the compensation that we offer our hourly workers, which is as it should be, because they are essential to the College and incredibly important members of our community,” Rose said. “And it goes beyond wages, which are among the leaders in the state and the region, and into a benefits package that is second to none.”
In describing the benefits packages, Rose noted that Bowdoin includes a retirement savings account to which the College makes 100 percent of the contributions and three health care options with premiums that include vision and dental plans and are among the most generous in the state for hourly workers. The College also pays for life and disability insurance and offers both paid sick days that accrue and emergency paid sick days.
As the Orient reported last spring, the comprehensive benefits package that Bowdoin offers is one of the reasons that hourly employees stay at the College. Facilities workers stay at Bowdoin for an average of 12 years and housekeepers stay for an average of nine, according to Rose.
Many alumni, though, expressed their issue not with Bowdoin’s benefits package but with hourly pay itself.
“Every time I come to campus, there’s another building that’s popped up. They’re like mushrooms. And who’s going to keep them clean?” asked Keith Halloran ’77. “I would just say, put your money where your mouth is. Each year they make 12 or 15 percent more off the endowment, so we have the money.”
“There’s no student on this campus that doesn’t have exposure to this issue. It is universal because somebody cleans up after you, somebody makes the spaces that you live in better, somebody makes your lives better,” said Trevor Murray ’16. “To be faced with the fact that they’re experiencing a little bit of injustice is uncomfortable.”
While students circulating the petition expressed that they were pleased with the number of signatures that they received, only three alumni who graduated before 1999 signed the pledge.
Sydney Avita-Jacques ’18, who is currently working as a community organizer in Cumberland County at the Maine People’s Alliance and was helping BLA members collect signatures, argued that this gap likely has to do partly with Bowdoin’s changing demographics.
“Older alums are much more likely to be wealthy, white men,” she said. “While that doesn’t have to mean anything about their politics, it often does.”
Nevertheless, Avita-Jacques believes older alums are necessary in the fight and trusts that, with outreach, BLA will find alumni committed to their cause who are over the age of 40.
“I never want to write anybody off; I think that would be foolish,” she said. “I think older alums could definitely be some of our strongest allies because they already have a foot in the door.”
Much of BLA’s strategy was centered around comparing Bowdoin’s policies surrounding hourly workers’ wages to some of the College’s peer institutions. A pamphlet distributed at HarvestFest argued, “If we hold Bowdoin to a truly high standard of ‘institutional quality’ by prioritizing workers, we can follow peer institutions such as Harvard, Swarthmore, Duke and the University of California in establishing a living wage for employees.”
Olivia Atwood ’17, who is responsible for soliciting donations for her class, signed the pledge, noting, “I am signing this pledge because I believe that Bowdoin, like Harvard, would stop working without this amazing staff of people. And I think that we need to respect that, and I think that we need to step up and pay these individuals what they deserve.”
Harvard’s dining employees went on strike for nearly a month in the fall of 2016. Policy changes have been enacted since then; the institution was profiled by the New York Times in September of this year for having a policy that is “vaulting workers into the middle class.”
Rose noted that Bowdoin does not consider pay scales of workers in Palo Alto or Cambridge when making its calculations of wage increases. Rather, it examines local economic conditions.
Although BLA sought alumni support over the weekend, all involved in the organization agree that workers’ voices are necessary in the struggle.
“If the willingness isn’t there, the energy isn’t there on the part of workers, then I think the whole issue is dead in the water,” said Grossmann.