I write to shed light on the lay-offs of two of Wellesley’s botanical garden workers, Tony Antonucci and David Sommers, in the wake of a petition (which I signed) and the vigil last Friday (which I did not attend). I am on leave this semester, writing a book on a paradigm shift in economics which is underway around the world, from inequality to solidarity. In it, I argue that we all can play a role in this gradual but crucially important transformation by expressing our cooperative, compassionate, equitable and ecological values in our economic lives. It is especially important, during times like these of conservative backlash, that we at Wellesley strive to embody and model high road economic behavior.
I am grateful to IMSEUA, Wellesley’s Union and to SLAP, the Student Labor Action Project, for bringing the grievances of the laid-off workers, and of the union as a whole, to the attention of the college administration and of our larger community. Unfortunately, in our country, the needs and feelings of workers usually receive little or no attention from those organizing and re- organizing our economic institutions; instead pro fits – i.e. the needs of owners – are primary. I am thankful that Wellesley has an administration with a commitment to equity; a union to bring together and amplify the voices of our workers and a contract which provides them with significant protections.
A major concern with these lay-offs is the upheaval in the lives of long-term members of our community, Tony and Dave, and in the lives of other Wellesley workers. We are used to an economy where workers are red with no notice – a worker’s right to a job is nonexistent, no matter how long and devotedly they have been serving their employer. Thankfully, Wellesley is different. The college’s contract with the union ensures that Tony and Dave can continue to work at the college by bumping into jobs of workers with less seniority, for which they are qualified. However, questions remains. Is the elimination of Tony and Dave’s jobs, and the major dislocation which this causes in their lives, really necessary? Won’t the new greenhouses have plants that require care? Did the administrators planning the reorganization take into account these men’s combined service to the college of over 65 years? And did they take into account the dislocations these lay-offs could cause, as Tony and Dave bump other workers out of their jobs, who in turn bump others? Tricia Diggins, who works with Tony and Dave, told me of a woman worker who just moved up from a nine-month food service job into a custodial job, who is in the process of buying a house with her husband; if bumped back to food service, she could lose her home. It is easy in today’s heartless economic climate to forget about the human consequences of our decisions. I am wondering whether the college administrators who engineered this reorganization were being sensitive to its effects on Wellesley’s union workers when they planned it. And I applaud SLAP for their video, which put a human face on the issue.
A second concern has been the fact that three union jobs were being turned into non-union jobs which involved essentially the same work, something that is in violation of the union’s contract. Tony and Dave’s jobs were being replaced by purportedly different nonunion jobs, and a third job, Tricia Diggins’ position, was being rede ned as being out of the union. The college argued that, given the reorganization accompanying the new greenhouses, the work to be done was now different in that managerial and other skills, including Masters’ degrees, were required. I support IMSEUA’s concern over the loss of union jobs. Unions have played an important role in empowering workers against classism, and their dramatic decline over the past 60 years — from almost a third to just over one-tenth — has contributed importantly to the sky- rocketing inequality in our country. I was heartened to learn that, during the ongoing negotiations, the college has offered to keep Tricia’s job in the union and to add another half job for the plant care work in the arboretum and greenhouses. That still leaves the union down one and a half jobs. I am hoping that the college will carefully reexamine its claim that the two new positions should not be union.
Finally, I want to urge the administration, IMSEUA, SLAP and other concerned members of the Wellesley community to commit ourselves to working to redress racial-ethnic, gender and class inequalities within the college’s union workforce, including the low representation of women and people of color in the higher-paid jobs, and the low annual wages of our nine-month food service employees, who are disproportionately women of color. The fact that these mirror inequalities within our economy at large does not mean that we should not strive to reduce them.