Anatomy of a Victory

Corey Dolgon

At a recent meeting with campus
custodians, Southampton College Provost, Tim Bishop, told workers that the private
management contract, which had outsourced the unit 18 months earlier, would be terminated
as of October 1, 1998. Bishop warned custodians, however, that they should not think of
this decision in terms of winning or losing; it was simply made in the best interests of
the college. But one custodian responded, "it feels like a victory to me."
Another explained, "Selling us out was supposed to be in the best interest of the
college, too, but it was never in our best interest."

Nor was it in the best interests of
the students, faculty, staff, and community members who formed the Coalition for Justice,
a group whose main objective was to have the college cancel its private contract with LARO
Management Services and rehire the outsourced custodians. As first reported in Z,
June 1997, the Coalition began a high pressure publicity campaign to expose the
institution’s hypocrisy in dealing with custodial workers. At the first major
demonstration held on campus since the Vietnam War, a faculty member explained to over 100
people attending; "The College’s mission statement and recruitment literature call on
us to build a caring and compassionate community. The decision to contract out custodians
[was] a cold and calculated one, not caring and compassionate. To build a community we
must join together and fight such decisions."

The Coalition succeeded in doing
just that. During the group’s first semester of demonstrations, letter writing, and public
education campaigns, community pressure forced the Administration to grant custodians some
of the original benefits they had lost (including tuition remission) by being outsourced.
The College felt vulnerable to public opinion because it sought a $5 million partnership
with the Town Board of Supervisors to build a joint aquatic facilities project.

In the Fall of 1997, the Coalition
began a second wave of demonstrations and publicity which not only addressed the injustice
of outsourcing, but also refocused attention on the institutional racism that had impacted
custodians for over 30 years. While janitors had been the only campus unit comprised of a
majority of people of color, not one minority had ever been promoted to the next level of
employment in the Physical Plant Department. This segregational arrangement inspired
Coalition member and longtime civil right’s activist, Bob Zellner, to comment that,
"the College reminds me of a Southern Plantation where African American are relegated
to the mop and bucket brigade." After serious pressure from the Coalition and other
community groups, the College finally promoted its first African American custodian to a
job as a mechanic.

But it was the Coalition’s constant
presence–demonstrations, sit-ins, flyers–and its willingness and ability to publicize
the situation that effectively neutralized LARO’s well-documented union busting and wage
reduction strategies. While LARO had initially deployed its supervisors to threaten and
degrade custodians, Coalition members exposed this behavior to both the College
administration and the local press. As Provost Bishop received public admonishment for
LARO’s tactics, he responded by calling on the company to back off. With their
intimidation strategies stymied, LARO had no other way to impact employment conditions and
effectively disappeared. Still, custodians worried over the prospect of having to
negotiate a new union contract with LARO this Fall.

During the Summer of 1998, the
custodians unanimously voted in a new union, Teamsters Local 840, to represent them in
their bargaining. As the Coalition prepared to renew the public pressure campaign,
administrators decided that they had had enough. Tired of seeing their actions criticized
in the press and worried that "bad publicity" might negatively effect plans for
a new endowment campaign, college officials decided to raise the white flag. The LARO
contract was terminated on September 30 and the college has begun negotiating a new
contract with the custodians and Local 840.

At a time when colleges and
universities around the country are engaging in such corporate downsizing practices as
outsourcing staff and part-timing faculty, this coalition struggle at a small college may
hold some examples for others hoping to stem the tide of privatized madness. By working
and meeting together as one group and not shying away from difficult issues such as race
and class, the Coalition for Justice created a new sense of community where students and
faculty not only supported custodians, but realized they had inter-related interests in
establishing a fair, just, and compassionate community. As many students wrote in their
class papers, the custodians became educators as the responsibility for knowledge
production became a shared enterprise characterized by collective struggle, not corporate
profit or cultural credentials.

As a sign of this success, the
Coalition is now organizing a teach-in and conference on student/labor/community activism
and social justice. These projects promise the possibility of expanding the group’s scope
beyond one particular struggle to a variety of issues that impact both the campus and
local community. In particular, the Coalition hopes to address the increased use of poorly
paid adjunct faculty, the lack of diversity among faculty and administrators, and the
overall changes in regional economics that are creating an increasingly bifurcated and
racialized population of rich and poor in the Hamptons.

The custodians are right to
recognize their rehiring as a great victory, not just for themselves and for the
coalition, but for the larger vision of establishing a real community of caring and
compassion. If the Coalition can continue to expand this notion of collective struggle and
diverse social justice, the Southampton College Campus may just live up to its mission
statement in spite of, not because of, its administration’s best efforts.