Members of the housekeeping staff have begun the process of unionization with the help of organizers from the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA). Union representatives declined to comment on the number of housekeepers supporting the initiative, but efforts to collect enough signed union authorization cards appear to have come to a standstill.
Director of Organizing and Field Operations for the MSEA Angela MacWhinnie began distributing the union cards on November 19. MSEA is a chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and represents custodial workers at the Maine Maritime Academy and various local community colleges. According to its website, the union helps members navigate issues “from day-to-day working conditions to health and safety issues to the bargaining table, [to] ensure [that] all workers are treated fairly so we all can do our jobs well.”
Housekeeper Bonnie Perkins is among those in favor of unionization. For her, membership in the MSEA would mean dignity and recognition, something that, according to past testimonies from over a dozen housekeepers, has often been missing from their work.
“We don’t get no respect. None at all,” Perkins said. “I think if we had a union they would give us more respect.”
Sandy Green, another housekeeper, also supports unionization, believing a union will help housekeepers advocate for new equipment and the ability to decide their own schedules.
“We are overworked and understaffed big time, and [the College] tells us we have enough employees, and we obviously don’t,” Green said. “We’re covering between 13 and 15 assignments a day because people are out, and our bodies are breaking.”
Not all housekeepers agree that unionization will solve their problems. Housekeeper Sonya Morrell declined to sign the union card when a co-worker approached her towards the end of November. After doing her own research on unionization, Morrell became concerned that unionization could lead to a re-evaluation of existing benefits for housekeepers.
“We need to be working on a lot of things in our department: management, issues and all of the things that have been … said,” Morrell said. “But I personally do not feel that unionization is the best way to do that.”
Morrell shared some of her concerns at a staff meeting at the end of November, which was attended by members of the College’s administration and Human Resources staff. Green believes that Morrell’s comments may have made housekeepers who were otherwise supportive of unionizing nervous about repercussions.
“She asked if anybody was against having the union, and nobody said a word,” Green said. “And of course, I wasn’t going to speak up in that meeting and start arguing with her, but it was pretty bad. It was very scary to a lot of the housekeepers.”
At that same meeting, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Matthew Orlando circulated a letter to housekeepers that encouraged them to think carefully before signing union cards.
“No one should be made to feel they need to sign a union card against their will just to stop being pressured or harassed,” the letter reads.
The document clarifies that the College “does not have a problem with unions” and that it will “respect the right of employees to unionize if that is what they want to do.”
The Office of Communications published the letter in full on its website on December 5.
In a statement to the Orient on behalf of the administration, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood reiterated that the College respects the unionization process and encourages employees to make their own decisions on the question of union membership.
“We know there are some who have been talking about unionizing the housekeeping staff here at Bowdoin. Our housekeepers are vital members of the Bowdoin community, and they have every right to explore joining a union,” Hood wrote in a statement.
“We simply want to make sure that each employee has the ability to consider the decision on their own with a full understanding of the pros and cons of being represented by a union, and that they are able to decide free from coercion, harassment, or retaliation. We ask members of our community and those from outside the College who are encouraging this move to be respectful of each other and of everyone’s right to support or not support the union as they see fit.”
Based on her professional experience as an organizer, MacWhinnie assumes that the College is following the advice of contracted lawyers.
“My guess is they probably hired a very expensive law firm,” she said. “They’re getting advice about how to run an [anti-union] campaign.”
The difficulties of union organization are not unique to Bowdoin. On October 31, the Middlebury Campus reported that ongoing efforts to unionize members of the college’s facility staff had ground to a halt. MacWhinnie, however, is optimistic about the future of organized labor on college campuses.
“[There are] a lot of workers that are coming together and deciding to organize even if it’s challenging, and we’ve seen a lot of amazing success of people coming together and making real change,” MacWhinnie said. “People in education institutions [are] a part of that, whether it’s higher ed or K-12.”
The unionization effort comes just weeks after President Clayton Rose announced a series of wage increases for full-time hourly staff, with the ultimate goal of a $17 minimum wage by 2022. In 2018, the Orient reported that some Bowdoin housekeepers struggle to make ends meet with the salary and benefits provided to them by the College, and they regularly work second jobs to supplement their Bowdoin income.
Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) has spoken out in solidarity with college employees in the past and passed a motion in October that praised the wage increase. The motion’s author, Caroline Poole ’22, explained the impetus behind the motion and its sustained relevance in the context of unionization.
“I fully intend to follow up and continue discussing questions of wages and working conditions so that we can get a guarantee from the school beyond oral testimony that workers will not face intimidation, retaliation or termination for speaking their truths,” Poole said.
The student-led Bowdoin Labor Alliance issued a statement in response to the housekeeper-led unionization effort.
“Over the last year and a half, the Bowdoin Labor Alliance has worked to support campus staff in their fight for just compensation, inclusion and respect. We will continue to stand beside our friends in the housekeeping department as they embrace a better future for themselves and for this institution,” read the statement.
Green acknowledged the support from students and reaffirmed her commitment to the cause of unionization going forward.
“Everybody that we spoke to said that we need change. And we need it now, not a year from now.”
Editor’s Note, 12/10/19, 10:11 p.m.: On December 9, the Bowdoin Labor Alliance posted a longer statement on the topic of unionization and housekeepers’ current working conditions. The statement can be found on the organization’s website, linked here.