By Andres Lizcano Rodriguez
“I feel as if we were back to slavery: the master says yes or no and you are not allowed to inquire about his reasons,” Eduardo Puppeto says. Puppeto is a waiter at Faculty House and the unofficial representative of the workers in their ongoing contract negotiations with Columbia University.
The Faculty House is Columbia University’s premier dining venue for special meetings and events, often with high-level guests. However, few people are aware of the ongoing contract conflict between the workers and the university, which has dragged on for a year.
In an interview with The Morningside Post, Puppeto explained the workers’ main concerns. First, they are considered part-time employees, even though some of them work over 60 hours a week. This has several effects on their benefits: they earn 10% less than the salary schedule applicable to their classification, and they must bear the uncertainty of being guaranteed only 20 hours of work per week.
Puppeto also explained that Faculty House charges its guests a service fee, which is not distributed to the workers. During the summer and winter breaks, when work is largely unavailable, workers are not entitled to unemployment benefits and receive a weekly stipend of only $65 per week. Finally, their base salaries are low: currently $13.30/hour and increasing by 2.25% a year.
“Columbia University is the exception to the rule. At Harvard and Hofstra, waiters earn about $20 if you include the tips,” Puppeto noted. He says the workers are willing to consider the university’s reasons for maintaining these working conditions, but the dialogue is currently nonexistent.
The workers are especially frustrated with their treatment by Sheila Garvey, Columbia University’s Assistant Vice President for labor relations. “I don’t know why that lady is disrespectful with us. Probably because we’re Hispanic,” Puppeto added.
Last November, students at Columbia College began to agitate for the workers’ cause. The Student Worker Solidarity group (SWS) was founded by Emilie Segura and other undergraduate students last fall to support clerical workers at Barnard. They managed to successfully settle a fair contract and are now working to inform the Columbia community about the situation at Faculty House. They have organized rallies and reached out to administrators, including President Lee C. Bollinger and Jeffrey F. Scott, Executive Vice President of Student and Administrative Services. The students intended to attend the negotiations but were rejected by Ms. Garvey.
Their actions have already brought some attention to the workers’ concerns. Faculty members such as Eric Foner, Professor at Columbia University’s Department of History, have expressed support, and Law School faculty have begun discussing the conflict as well. “There’s a lot of faculty who are also behind you and behind the workers,” said Foner on Friday, March 8th, as he addressed a rally in front of Low Library. He went on to underline the important role student support has played in earlier worker disputes.
SWS estimates that approximately 200 people participated in last Friday’s rally. Now, graduate students are starting to organize as well. SIPASA president Rachel Boehr has been following the issue closely and is concerned over the worker conditions and contract negotiations, especially given the number of SIPA-associated events held at Faculty House. She plans to bring a resolution to a vote at SIPASA before spring break. “Given the ongoing tensions with the community surrounding the Manhattanville expansion project and other labor issues in Columbia’s history, it doesn’t shock me that institutional racism has been raised in this debate,” said Boehr.
Columbia University is likely negotiating with an eye towards the future. SWS members believe that the school does not want to set a precedent of more generous contracts. However, Faculty House and Columbia administrative staff refused to comment on the subject. Robert Hornsby, Assistant Vice President for Media Relations, said he would let us know if he received word from the most senior administrators.
In the meantime, last week the workers approved a potential escalation of their battle with the administration. This may include a strike, possibly during an ongoing event. None of these actions have yet been set in place, however. The workers are still hoping for Columbia University to take action before their health insurance expires on March 31st. But they and their allies are well aware that this is unlikely. On Friday, Eric Foner addressed the rally: “It’s in the DNA of the administration that they always seem to take the wrong position when it comes to labor issues.”
This article appeared in the Mar. 12, 2013 print edition of The Morningside Post.