As recent alumni, our lives continue to be shaped by what Bowdoin taught us: the value of critical thinking and connection to place, and a desire to work towards the Common Good in our own ways. While it’s easy to think of the students and professors that made our experiences possible, the support we received from housekeeping staff was just as integral to our success.
From our first days on campus until we crossed the stage at graduation, housekeeping staff made Bowdoin more than a school, but a home. Some even welcomed us into their homes or became our friends. The work that housekeepers do every day allowed us to learn and grow. Now it’s time for us to support them.
In May 2018, an Orient investigation revealed that many workers struggle to make ends meet. Some shared stories of visiting the food pantry or eating the leftover food they found at work. Others shared that they are unable to put money towards savings, making them vulnerable to financial emergencies. Under the current wage policy, many hourly staff must work extra jobs on top of their full-time employment to supplement Bowdoin’s low pay.
Students, faculty, staff and alumni responded, forming the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA), a student-staff collaborative that continues to fight for a living wage. At graduation last May, 1,500 people wore yellow ribbons in solidarity with staff, and in just one month, nearly 1,000 people signed a petition demanding:
1. A living wage for all workers
2. The establishment of a working group to find tangible means of achieving this goal
3. Making funding for a living wage a priority in budgeting and fundraising efforts
For four months, the College was silent. In September, President Rose professed Bowdoin’s commitment to its hourly employees, citing a minimum starting wage increase which workers described as arbitrary and insufficient. From Portland to Millinocket, Pennsylvania to Peru, we have watched with frustration as the College has failed to take meaningful action.
BLA has shown that a $15 starting wage is fully realistic. The cost of this wage increase would amount to less than 10 percent of the cost of the College’s new football field, a drop in the bucket for Bowdoin’s $1.6 billion endowment.
But for staff, a starting wage of $15 could mean “not just working, eating and sleeping.” It could allow them to buy healthier groceries or “visit family [they] haven’t seen in years.”
In April, workers wrote a letter detailing the need for alumni involvement in the fight for a living wage. It states, “the Bowdoin Community will listen to you more than to housekeepers. We were the ones involved with you, speaking to you, cheering you on. We need your help on this one.”
Bowdoin alumni are deeply loyal and more engaged than most. Whether we’re in Boston or Seattle, we stop to greet each other when we spot Polar Bear hats. We go out of our way to help fellow alumni find everything from careers to couches to sleep on. Every year, we flock in hundreds to Homecoming and Reunion weekends.
Today, we must extend this loyalty to all members of the Bowdoin community. Faced with almost a year of apathy from the College, it is clear that our signatures are not enough; at a place like Bowdoin, money talks. Since the administration refuses to listen to students and staff demanding a living wage, we will make our voices heard by withholding donations this BowdoinOne Day.
We encourage current seniors and alumni to sign our pledge and promise not to donate to Bowdoin until the College implements a $15/hour living wage policy that takes into account the livelihood and dignity of its full-time workers and allows them to lead lives of financial security.
Our intent is not to starve Bowdoin of funds, as our large endowment surely prevents— but rather to send the message that alumni will continue raising our voices against the College’s current treatment of staff until it pays workers enough to live. For now, alumni who want to make a point of including workers in their support of the College can donate to an alternative discretionary fund for housekeepers, which alumni will manage with worker input.
For a full account of our community’s work to support a living wage, click here.
Julia Berkman-Hill is a member of the Class of 2017. Sydney Avitia-Jacques, Diana Furukawa and Jonah Watt are members of the Class of 2018.