Construction personnel broke ground on Wellesley’s highly anticipated Science Center renovation in late 2018. The $206 million renovation was presented as a unifying endeavor aimed at building the “gold standard” for women in STEM, but it belies a controversy over precisely who has been digging into Sage Hall.
Wellesley partnered with a general contractor that hired non-union subcontractors for the Science Center renovation, in lieu of picking up the Local Construction Workers 103 union — and that decision did not go over well with the local organization. Privately, the construction union has been exchanging letters, emails and phone calls with the administration. Publicly, the union doubled down on its messaging, creating the website whataboutmewellesley.org, hiring an airplane to fly over Wellesley during an alumni event and taking out a full page ad in the Boston Herald.
“You cannot promote women’s equity and empowerment of women when you’re not promoting it on your own grounds,” said Kennell Broomstein, the business manager of Local Construction Workers 103. That is the gist of the union’s criticism of the administration. According to whataboutmewellesley.org, union representation “levels the playing field” in a job that is “notoriously male-dominated.” Broomstein and her colleagues at Local 103 believe that Wellesley is doing wrong by female construction workers by bringing on non-union labor.
92 percent of women and 90 percent of people of color in building apprenticeships are in union-sponsored trade apprenticeships, according to WhatAboutMeWellesley.org. Membership in a union also gives workers access to a contract that eliminates a possible wage gap and promotes pay equity. Thus, Local 103 alleged that Wellesley’s decision to hire non-union subcontractors through which female workers might not get the same protections stands diametrically opposed to the College’s stated goal of uplifting and empowering women.
Wellesley has fired back against the charges. On a page on the College’s website explaining the “Construction Workforce Participation Goal,” the administration clarifies that 75 percent of companies on the project are unionized. In an email, President Paula Johnson shared that administration had set a goal for combined woman and minority participation on the Science Center project to reach 10 percent. This number is informed by Massachusetts’ state goals, which are 6.9 percent and 15.3 percent for women and minorities, respectively. They state that they are now exceeding that goal, with 6 percent of current workers on the project being women and 27 percent being people of color. Still, this means that the administration would have been satisfied with 90 percent of the construction workforce being white and male.
President Johnson also wrote in the email that the College “only works with highly reputable contractors,” and that they consider competitive wages and benefits “important criteria” for all projects. According the administration, they and their general contractor Turner Construction “were satisfied” with the wages, which are also regulated by the Massachusetts Equal Fair Pay Act. The Wellesley News also reached out to Piper Orton, Wellesley’s Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer, and was referred back to the information provided in the recent Boston Globe article or on the College website.
There hasn’t been any official statement on why Wellesley chose not to go with Local Construction Workers 103, but Broomstein suspected that “it was about the dollar value,” meaning that it would be cheaper for them to shop around than to go with fully unionized labor.
The contentious negotiations with Local Construction Workers 103 overlapped with a flareup involving Wellesley’s server workers union, IMSEUSA. Earlier this month, hundreds of students, faculty and staff, unhappy with a wage stagnation for dining service employees, signed a petition asking the college to reconsider the decision. Ultimately, the administration acquiesced, and a union worker speaking under the condition of anonymity told the Wellesley News that the college had rolled back the worst of its proposals. Before that, in the winter of 2017, the now-defunct campus labor rights group SLAP organized a protest vigil in support of three greenhouse workers who were facing termination. In this case, the College was trying to replace their jobs with non-union positions that would require a college degree. Ultimately, two of the workers kept their jobs, but one greenhouse worker was fired.
Former SLAP member Heather Gluck calls this evidence of Wellesley’s “determined union-busting” and wrote in an email to the Wellesley News that the current situation with Local Union Workers 103 “sends the message that [the College] does not support justice when it applies to working class people.”
Broomstein says that although Local 103 has worked for Wellesley in the past, the College has not suggested that it would move to partner with them in the future or change course on its use of non-union labor.