Upon arriving here as a first-generation, low-income student, I identified most with the mission of the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA). Per our website, which is no longer actively maintained due to social discontinuities and expenses: “The Bowdoin Labor Alliance is a coalition of students, faculty and staff dedicated to pushing Bowdoin College to ensure a living wage and humane working conditions for ALL employees. BLA members work to make our community more aware of labor and class in our everyday lives. Together, we are dedicated to making Bowdoin’s campus a financially accessible, inclusive place.”
For those who never knew or have forgotten, in the spring and fall of 2019, the BLA was the driving force behind what was known as “The Living Wage Campaign.” This was the movement that accompanied the birth of the organization. In May 2018, before I arrived as a first-year student, the Orient published an article detailing the conditions that grounds and housekeeping staff endured as the College paid them less than a living wage.
In February 2019, BLA co-founders Ben Ray and Diego Grossman wrote an op-ed detailing how the College justified paying its workers less than a living wage. The answer lies in the Maine Department of Labor’s distinction between a housekeeper and a custodian or janitor. While housekeepers are expected to “perform any combination of light cleaning duties to maintain private households or commercial establishments, such as hotels and hospitals, in a clean and orderly manner,” including “making beds, replenishing linens, cleaning rooms and halls and vacuuming,” Bowdoin housekeepers are expected to tend to much heavier duties.
According to Bowdoin, “a Housekeeper’s responsibilities include, but are not limited to: Servicing bathrooms … removing trash and recycling … cleaning and vacuuming, sweeping, washing floors …” etcetera. This description is akin to the Maine Department of Labor’s definition of custodial work done by janitors, who make, on average, anywhere from $1–$3 more per hour. In their op-ed, Ben and Diego highlighted that “unlike Bowdoin, Colby and Bates label campus cleaning staff as custodians. Down the road at Brunswick and Mt. Ararat high schools, cleaning staff—also labeled as custodians—make between $17 and $23.07 an hour.”
In May 2019, a year after students, faculty and staff began sounding the alarm and alerting the community to the conditions that housekeepers were enduring, the Orient reported that “over 100 students, faculty and alumni showed up on Thursday 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.”
Later that year, the College announced its plan to increase the minimum wage to $17 an hour for benefits-eligible employees. In an interview with the Orient, President Rose claimed the decision was made “because it’s the right thing to do for our employees in the context of the realities of the labor market, and [out of] a desire to remain a leader in the state and in the region,” offering no indication that student organizers were a powerful force behind the move. Spoiler: they were, and this potential still exists.
On December 6, 2019, the Bowdoin Orient reported that “members of the housekeeping staff [had] begun the process of unionization with the help of organizers from the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA).” Sandy Green, who worked as a housekeeper and is no longer employed by the College, lamented, “We are overworked and understaffed big time, and [the College] tells us we have enough employees, and we obviously don’t.… We’re covering between 13 and 15 assignments a day because people are out, and our bodies are breaking.”
Following winter break and the subsequent disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, these efforts fell apart as students vacated campus. This disruption seemed to change everything. Not only did the BLA lose key leadership and visionary members, but when I arrived back at Bowdoin in the fall of 2021, many of the housekeepers who had collaborated with the BLA, like Sandy, had left. The problems facing the housekeeping staff, however, remained.
Being overworked, under-resourced, dismissed, belittled and surveilled is a reality that both students and staff have to contend with at Bowdoin. Countless people employed by the college have reported a fear of corresponding with the BLA due to retaliation from management. This is not only unacceptable, it is an offense to the staff and students working tirelessly to exercise compassion and collective action in a place that demands students immerse themselves in high quantities of solitary work and individual pursuits. The administration should be taking every step to ensure that the people who maintain the dignified and sanitary conditions of campus are welcome to speak about the conditions of their workplace without fear that punitive measures will be taken against them. Housekeepers consistently report that their relationships with students are what make working at Bowdoin “worth it.” The fact that housekeepers have been put in a situation in which they feel the need to vet which students they talk to based on their extracurricular affiliations is shameful. Not only do these behaviors interfere with the College’s commitment to social justice and inclusion and diversity, but the institutional incentive to keep quiet acts as a barrier to building strong, healthy communities that are capable of holding a Common Good.
The BLA believes that the appropriate response to this persistent issue is to sincerely and thoroughly investigate and address workplace mismanagement at Bowdoin College, as well as to partner with the Office of Residential Life, Counseling and Wellness and the Office of Inclusion and Diversity to create a space in which staff are not only encouraged, but are compensated with a living wage to be in conversation with students, faculty and administrators about the realities of their labor on campus. Seeking the Common Good is not an abstract thing that students do after they depart the campus community, but an effort that must be engaged with at Bowdoin by creating an environment in which students and workers feel safe to tell the truth—to communicate what’s working and what isn’t.
Keaghan Duffy is a member of the Class of 2023.