PROVIDENCE — The strike by movers, custodians, and grounds service staff at the Rhode Island School of Design is now in its eighth day.
The Teamsters, representing 60 employees, has been negotiating wages and health benefits since June, according to RISD. Negotiations failed on Thursday.
Teamsters Local 251 union representative Tony Suazo told the Globe Tuesday that negotiations had been going well until the union asked for annual pay increases that would provide workers with an adequate living wage in today’s economy.
“We have been negotiating since June and a lot of the economic back-and-forth started before the fall of 2022,” Suazo said. “We put a lot of stuff on the table, we’ve removed stuff from the table, and made movement on our end. They [RISD] pretty much haven’t made movement at all. Their proposal has remained stagnant over the last four months.”
In a statement released on April 2, RISD said both sides began discussing “economic issues” in October.
Danielle Stead Mancuso, associate director of public relations for RISD, told the Globe in an e-mailed statement Tuesday that union leaders sent RISD numerous communications on Thursday about returning to the negotiating table, and the sides agreed to a meeting with a federal mediator. However, the statement said the meeting was not productive.
“Once again, the union made demands for wages that demonstrated an unwillingness to have reasonable discussions with the goal of reaching agreement,” the statement said. “This process and their approach continues to be a disservice to both our valued employees and the individuals the union purports to represent. While the strike continues, there has been no opportunity this week to discuss bringing the contract to resolution given the unavailability of the Teamsters lead negotiator.
“RISD has been negotiating with the union representing our movers, custodians and grounds services staff members since June 2022. RISD submitted a fair and fiscally responsible offer to union leaders on February 16, which included wage increases for all bargaining unit positions and maintained a generous benefit plan. The union’s response to this offer to date can hardly be considered a counter proposal. The excessive increases demanded by the union are not reflective of realistic expectations and are leaving our employees in a position where they are not getting the wage increases they deserve.”
Suazo said only one school official attended the meeting, but Mancuso said the meeting was confirmed with two hours’ notice. She sent another e-mail responding to the representative’s claim.
“Knowing that the lead negotiator for the Teamsters was leaving for vacation later that same day, rather than decline the meeting, Mike Fitzpatrick (RISD director of labor relations) attended on behalf of RISD,” Mancuso said in an e-mail Tuesday. “Due to the short notice, conflicting schedules and other factors precluded other members of the RISD negotiating team from participating.”
In its April 2 statement, RISD said it “respects” the union’s plan to strike, but stated, “it will not resolve this matter.”
Since the strike began, Teamsters and RISD students have papered the campus with “art strike” flyers around school buildings, banged drums, and parked a massive pig labeled “CEO” in front of the RISD administration office at 20 Washington Place.
Strike banners call for vehicles to “honk” if they support the Teamsters.
Union members are not impeding access to RISD’s buildings, and Providence Police are monitoring the strike from a distance.
Suazo said the strike will end when RISD meets the union “where the group believes they want to be.”
Community members have stopped to offer support, and local businesses have provided food for the striking workers.
Union member John Cabral, who walked in front of Washington Place Tuesday wearing a sandwich board that said “Local Teamsters Local 251 ON STRIKE,” said the strike is frustrating.
“The last three years have been murder,” Cabral said. “They have just not responded to our needs. ... We were the only staff that came here during COVID, through the whole thing. We worked every day.”
Cabral said the union was joined by more than 200 students.
“They’re supporting us greatly,” Cabral said.
Graduate student Sarah Alix Mann told the Globe Tuesday she authored an e-mail, intending to send it to the entire student body, that questioned whether RISD President Crystal Williams was being transparent in e-mails to the campus community about negotiations with the union. She said she spoke with Teamsters who openly provided details about meetings between their members and RISD.
After pressing send, Mann received a message saying her e-mail was pending approval by a RISD moderator. A similar e-mail by another student had been approved about a week earlier.
Mann said she was told by a member of the school’s student affairs staff that there was concern such messages could be “counted as RISD approves this message.”
So she handed out paper copies of her e-mail and posted it on social media Monday, and by Tuesday, students had scanned the letter and were handing out copies.
Mann said she is not an activist or part of any student-elected clubs, but a person who values openness.
“It felt like someone had to be the person to start talking about the lack of information, and nobody was doing it,” said Mann, whose work has involved issues of transparency, accountability, and access to information. “I feel like they are not asking for very much. They could be asking for very much more.”
RISD employee Gina Santos called the school’s proposal, “A dumb response.”
“It’s nothing we want,” she said. “We need a raise because life today, everything is too expensive and they only pay $15.65 an hour. I’ve worked here for 10 years, and that’s how much they pay me. I have bills to pay and I have a house to pay [for] and I have a family. We need to support the family.”
Santos said her last raise of 2 percent was nullified by insurance increases.
This story has been updated with a response from Danielle Stead Mancuso, RISD’s associate director of public relations; and from graduate student Sarah Alix Mann.