This past year, the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA) exposed the vast distance between low-wage workers at the College and an administration indifferent to their needs. Leadership at the College prioritizes the financial bottom line over its obligation to our community members, even when we, as a wealthy liberal arts college and “non-profit,” have the luxury of making financial decisions that reflect our core values. BLA, a coalition of Bowdoin workers, students and community members, was established to call upon the College to implement a living wage for all employees and commit to maintaining a safe, fair and equitable workplace.
Our “Rally For A Living Wage” in May was viewed by thousands and given significant coverage in the local press. Hundreds of Bowdoin community members also wore ribbons in solidarity during graduation. These actions, along with an Orient report detailing the misclassification of cleaning staff, ultimately resulted in our lowest-paid workers receiving a meager raise; while cleaning staff at the starting wage saw an increase of nearly a dollar, many who have served the college for years, even decades, only saw raises of three percent or less. Even after a lifetime of work, many low-wage workers on our campus are disillusioned by a stagnant compensation program that does not grow to reflect years of commitment.
This summer, a survey and numerous conversations with workers revealed that some were content with the changes, yet many were disappointed they did not receive more and that wage compression persisted. Many workers are upset to see colleagues who have been here for six or seven years making the same as new hires; many are upset that they are still making below the $15 we all hoped for. According to the College, its compensation program “sets Bowdoin apart among Maine employers.” They dismiss a $15 starting wage as a baseline for communities such as “New York City, San Francisco and Seattle.” Yet, down the road, Brunswick and Mt. Ararat high schools pay cleaning staff starting—not average—wages of $21.32 and $17.90, respectively.
While Bowdoin has yet to recognize the need for a living wage, issues of labor and inequity exist throughout our campus and community. This summer, the New England Regional Council of Carpenters notified BLA and the Maine Department of Labor that Timberland Drywall, a subcontractor for the new Park Row Apartments, has been misclassifying its construction workers and consequently committing tax fraud. The $15.25 million allocated to this luxury upper-classmen housing project certainly should not rest on illegal practices of tax fraud and misclassification to meet unrealistic goals of timing, scale and expense.
The misclassification of workers as “independent contractors” rather than employees allows companies to shirk their responsibility to pay taxes that reflect their size and shift the costs of health insurance and workplace injuries onto individuals. Every time a cheating contractor is awarded a project, a legitimate company and their employees pay the price. This effect is multiplied by the loss of tax revenue that would fund public goods such as police, firefighters, public schools and social security.
We demand that Bowdoin deeply scrutinize the workplace practices of the companies it hires in the future, and call upon the College to commit to choosing union-protected companies—an established way to prevent a race to the bottom by companies motivated to cut corners at workers’ expense. This would ensure that workers are not only guaranteed good wages, benefits and strict safety standards, but are also empowered to speak up against illegal practices and conditions in an at-will state. Our current building standards do nothing to guarantee that these conditions are met, and hiring union would ensure that they are.
Bowdoin’s plan to spend $153 million on capital projects from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2022 involves numerous subcontractors, which means that the potential for unfair and illegal labor practices persists. While our extensive building guidelines emphasize “sustainability,” they fail to even mention the health and safety of the workers who show up faithfully for months on end to build and care for our spaces. Bowdoin will only demonstrate a true commitment to “sustainability” when it considers a safe, fair and equitable workplace an essential component of sustainable development. Green jobs should be good jobs, too.
Further, as exemplified by the Wesleyan Student Assembly, the Bowdoin Student Government should immediately pass a resolution calling on the College to hire unionized, non-exploitative and legal labor for all upcoming campus construction. The well-being of all workers on our campus should be of the utmost concern to representatives of our student body, especially as we enter an academic year with issues of labor at the forefront.
As students, we should use our institutional power to demand that Bowdoin do better. Whether it’s the misclassification of our own cleaning staff, or Bowdoin’s tacit approval of its subcontractors breaking state labor laws, it’s become clear that Bowdoin will only respond to pressure from us. As we begin a new academic year, we must all become aware of the inequities that exist throughout our campus community and take advantage of our time as students to move Bowdoin forward and not be complacent with the status quo.
Diego Grossmann and Benjamin Ray are members of the class of 2020.