Strikes Roil RISD, Rutgers Art Schools

Strikes Roil RISD, Rutgers Art Schools

Students in the art programs at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, took to the streets this week in support of striking staff at both higher learning institutions. Custodial workers at RISD have been on strike since April 3, while on April 10, roughly 9,000 Rutgers employees, including professors, adjuncts, and graduate students, staged the largest walkout in the university’s 257-year history. Workers at both universities are seeking better wages, with those at Rutgers lobbying specifically for equal pay for equal work for adjunct faculty, guaranteed funding and a living wage for graduate workers, job security for all faculty, reasonable salary increases commensurate with inflation, affordable student housing, and forgiveness of students’ overdue fees and fines.

At RISD, students joined striking members of Teamsters Local 251, which includes movers, groundskeepers, and custodians, on the picket line April 12. Hyperallergic reports that the architecture, digital media, and sculpture departments have all announced their solidarity with the striking workers, and that the painting department postponed classes for a day in order for students, staffers, and faculty to work together to draft a statement of support. Paul Soulellis, head of the school’s graphic design department, told the Brown Daily Herald that faculty, including members of his department, were holding class outdoors or off campus in solidarity with the striking workers.

Faculty refusal to cross the picket line is “a sign of respect for the idea of unified voices and collective action when single voices can’t be heard as well,” Amy Kravitz, head of RISD’s film, animation, and video department, told the publication. The RISD workers have been negotiating for a new contract since June 2022 but bargaining ground to a halt after the union refused what they saw as an unfair offer from management on February 16. RISD president Crystal Williams in a statement defended the school’s offer of an average wage of $17.90 per hour for the lowest-paid workers. The union has asked for a $20 minimum wage. For context, the average cost of a rental apartment in Providence is reported to be $1,414. With many landlords requiring renter income of forty times that monthly payment, an annual income of roughly $56,560 is required. A worker would need to make about $27.20 per hour to afford an apartment—nearly ten dollars above what the university has offered, and seven dollars above the requested base wage.

The members of the Providence city council on April 10 wrote to Williams and RISD’s board, urging them to engage in “honest negotiations.” “Insisting on being paid a livable wage is not an excessive demand and we stand with these workers as they exercise their right to organize and strike,” declared the board.

At Rutgers, where the strike follows a stalled eleven-month contract negotiaton, classes are continuing apace, with the action only a few days old. Members of the striking faculty pointed out that their action was meant to additionally benefit students, many of whom joined them on the picket line. “We are also fighting for students and the community in the form of housing justice and a Rutgers-supported Beloved Community Fund for local residents who experience or have experienced financial and other hardships and have been excluded from other state or federal relief program,” David Letwin, a professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts and an executive board member of the university’s American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT), told The Art Newspaper.

The strikes follow a successful action by staff and faculty at New York’s New School in protest of the low wages the college paid its adjunct professors. The strike, which saw classrooms darkened for weeks as students joined their teachers—nearly 90 percent of whom are adjuncts—on the picket line, brought unwelcome attention to the New School, which was founded in 1919 as a progressive alternative to expensive Ivy League colleges.

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