Students, staff rally for ‘living wage’ as trustees meet on campus
May 11, 2019
Over 100 students, faculty and alumni showed up on Thursday afternoon to show their support for Bowdoin’s housekeeping staff, several of whom spoke on the front porch of Baxter House to tell their stories and voice their demands to be paid a living wage.
“My family has given half a century of service to Bowdoin College,” said Jo Warner, who has worked to clean the College for 28 years, after her father before her. “And now I find myself scared to death speaking at a rally to ask my employer to pay its cleaning crew a liveable wage. That’s heartbreaking.”
The current starting wage for housekeeping staff at Bowdoin is $12.50 per hour, and housekeepers at the College earn an average of $13.97 per hour. Raises, according to multiple housekeepers who spoke at the rally, can be minimal, if they are awarded at all. While the College has announced plans to increase wages for facilities workers for the coming academic year so that the new starting wage will be $12.65 per hour and the average will be $14.95 per hour, some staff and students argue that even the new hourly rate is not enough, especially for workers needing to support children and families. A calculation by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that the living wage for an adult working full-time in Maine with one child is $24.35 per hour.
Speakers described tasks beyond the housekeeper job description and pay grade that they are expected to complete regardless. They fix clogs in toilets and sinks, check the fire extinguishers monthly and deal with infestations of bed bugs and mice. Additionally, some housekeepers have chosen to pursue other work outside of Bowdoin to earn extra money.
“We can’t enjoy living with all the extra jobs we work to make ends meet,” said Sherry Cousins, who has worked as a housekeeper at Bowdoin for over twenty years.
Filling the role of a surrogate parent for Bowdoin students is some of the most valuable work housekeepers do, several speakers noted. They provide care, support and hugs to those who need it, but in return, many members of the housekeeping staff feel they are not treated with the respect they deserve.
“The administration in control has deceived us, and does not believe that we are worthy of a living wage—or that we matter, or that we’re human,” said Tracey Taylor, who has worked at the College for six years. “The food bank is somewhere we were told to go if we can’t feed our families.
The rally was organized by members of the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA), a group that formed over a year ago to stand with Bowdoin employees and pressure the College to increase their wages and treat them with dignity and respect. Ben Ray ’20 and Diego Grossmann ’20, the founders of BLA, explained that the rally was neither the beginning nor the end to the living wage campaign at Bowdoin.
“A living wage is not only a necessity. It’s also something our community supports,” said Ray, unfurling a petition containing more than 900 signatures of Bowdoin community members in favor of a living wage. The rally concluded with a march across College Street—ralliers chanting “One job here should be enough!”—to deliver the petition to President Clayton Rose’s office.
In response to previous concerns about staff wages, the College has on several occasions said that it offers one of the best benefits programs of any employer in the region. Those benefits include paid sick leave, three healthcare plan options and a retirement contribution each year equivalent to more than 10 percent of an employee’s yearly salary.
The rally was designed to coincide with the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees and scholarship luncheon, in the hopes that those with a say in the distribution of the College’s funds would take note of the extensive and vocal support for the living wage campaign. With a crowd of over four hundred students, cheering, chanting and dressed in bright yellow to show their support, many are hopeful that the administration will begin to listen.
“We’re here because of the College’s constant denial that there is a wage issue,” said Anibal Husted ’22, who volunteers weekly to bring coffee and donuts to the housekeeping staff meeting at 5 a.m. on Friday mornings. “If there wasn’t an issue, there wouldn’t be all of these housekeepers here putting their jobs at risk. If there wasn’t an issue, this crowd of students and professors and workers would not have shown up.”
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And still no word from the trustees as to whether they’ll even recognize that a wage issue exists for the positions paid the least on campus. The truth about people struggling in our own community has been public for a year now. Are they not around enough to know that our campus wants to make addressing this a priority? We really do have the money to make sure all Bowdoin jobs are good jobs.