A Seat at the Table

Last year at the Barnard Commencement address, President Obama forcefully encouraged the young graduates to “fight for your seat at the table.” At first glance, the Barnard administration seems to support the struggle for female empowerment, sponsoring initiatives including a center for the practice of women's leadership, and Barnard’s Global Symposium, a series with powerful women leaders.

But being an elite is expensive. Fortunately, Spar and her Wall St. affiliated Barnard board members realized the best way to keep Barnard solvent would be to slash the health, pension, and tuition benefits of the lowest paid employees at the college-the clerical workers. And in order to empower women, Spar decided to drastically cut from the most basic female employment victories — maternity leave and flex time.

Are these the people – primarily low-income women of color – really the people to target? As United Academic Workers Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein told The Nine Ways of Knowing, “They love the college because of the students and the faculty, but if you combine these low salaries with these benefit cuts, people can’t survive.”

At the heart of the issue is the administration’s fundamental hypocrisy. How can you claim to push women forward while denying female workers basic means to support themselves? Rosenstein hit the nail on the head when she said, “Barnard should be a fair workplace because if it’s not... it is contradictory to the mission of the college.” Spar’s grand designs to turn Barnard into one of the country’s premier corporate factories ignore people at the bottom. Instead of throwing money at exotic business symposiums in Sao Paolo or Mumbai, Spar should pay her workers a living wage. Furthermore, Barnard’s “debt crisis” sparked by the construction of the $45 million Diana Center was not an inexplicable accident. It was the administration’s decision to take on the debt for the center with no input from the union. Spar and her administration, therefore, bear the responsibility to feel this financial burden.

To find out exactly how Spar’s contract will affect workers, I sat down with Cheryl Black, a unit chair for the workers’ Union Local 2110 and an office worker at Barnard:

She (Spar) claimed the college’s debt was an excuse for these ridiculous cuts. But we told her we already took a wage freeze last year and gave up serious healthcare benefits. We’ve been trying all we can to help out. Now it’s to a point where our members, the lowest paid here, are suffering. We had nothing to do with the planning for the Diana Center. That was their decision! How many more cuts can we take? I just purchased a home in Brooklyn, just trying to stay above on the mortgage and my daily living. I can’t go out to eat or to the movies. And I hear the same cries from the membership. A lot of us our working two jobs a day. What about those ladies with children? Day care? Utilities? We’re not asking for anything big, just making ends meet as it is right now… We enjoyed this place as a community. It’s not the same anymore. They can’t connect with it because they don’t make this kinda money, they’re not in the same income bracket. It’s not just her (Spar) but they don’t understand. Were just asking for a fair and decent contract.

Fortunately, Barnard students have stepped up to the challenge, forming the “Students Support Barnard Workers” group (find them on Facebook). They plan to hold an information session at Barnard on October 1st and to lead direct action campaigns throughout the impending negotiation crisis. The sense of outrage on campus seems to be missing, but it’s not too hard to find it simmering under the surface.

The organizer of the student movement, Emilie Segura, remarked on the importance of student solidarity, saying, “The only way the administration will listen to the workers is if students fight for them. And that’s why we’re organizing and putting pressure on the administration because we are the products of their system.”

As Obama declared in his commencement address, “Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn’t just do it for themselves; they did it for other people. That’s how we achieved women’s rights… That’s how we achieved workers’ rights.”