Maria Andrade, a custodian at the Rhode Island School of Design, takes a lunch break Thursday, April 6, 2022, during the fourth day of a strike by General Teamsters Local 251. The strike began Monday after the two parties failed to come to an agreement on worker’s wages. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE – A four-day strike by workers at the Rhode Island School of Design is set to continue after the university and union representatives failed to come to an agreement during talks Thursday.
“When it came to wages, we just hit a wall,” Tony Suazo, a business agent with General Teamsters Local 251, said. “We see what the economic landscape is. A lot of folks have been here over a decade and only make $15 an hour.”
The strike by 62 custodians, groundskeepers, and movers, began Monday after months of negotiations to raise wages to $20 an hour failed.
Jaime Marland, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), said in an emailed statement the school maintains its position that a wage increase would be a fiscally irresponsible move.
“In-mid February, after months of negotiations and several sessions with a federal mediator, RISD presented union leaders with a best and final offer that provides members with pay increases and a strong benefits package,” the statement read, adding that they never received a formal response to the offer.
“RISD has been negotiating with the General Teamsters Local 251, the union representing our movers, custodians and grounds services staff members, since June 2022 to come to an agreement that provides our valued employees with wage increases while maintaining their benefits,” the statement continued. “The burden is on the union to engage in reasonable discussions about wages and benefits.”
— Kevin Gomes Andrade (@KevinGAndrade) April 6, 2023
Marland added that the strike would not affect students at the institution where annual tuition is $58,690.
The line elicited disdain from the Teamsters, who this week erected an inflatable pig, dressed in a vest, smoking a cigar, and holding money with the words “corporate greed” facing the cars driving by on Washington Place as it turns into Waterman Street. Suazo said the workers already agreed to some of the school’s offers when they agreed to use school insurance and retirement plans instead of those offered by the Teamsters.
“A lot of what the school is saying out there is that we’re being unreasonable,” he said. “We are going to be out here as long as it takes.”
Clarinda DePina said she began working as a custodian for the Rhode Island School of Design almost seven years ago. She said that she makes $15.65 hourly and the wage puts her in a position where she needs to clean three more private homes after hours.
She added custodial management in the two buildings she works in speak down to the workers and maintain an overly vigilant eye on them.
“I had already been working a few hours and took 30 minutes for a break,” DePina, who spoke in Portuguese, said. “They found me and told me that I need to let them know when I am taking a break and to go into a break room. We don’t even have one, it’s used for storage.”
She added that union demands are a matter of basic respect toward workers.
“We do our jobs very well,” DePina said.
Maria Andrade, an immigrant from Cabo Verde who has worked at the school for 11 years, said that she works in a nine-story dormitory where management is good. But the wages need to increase.
“What I’m hearing from the other buildings, the way they’re being treated is not right,” she said. “What I do have is a lot to say about the pay.”
As if to emphasize the point, she began to dance and chant in Portuguese to the rhythm of an impromptu drum line set up in front of the Rhode Island School of Design Administration building that solicited honks in solidarity from passing cars.
“Vamos a lutar! Vamos a lutar!” Andrade chanted. We will continue the struggle!
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