The strike by RISD’s custodians, groundskeepers, and movers that stretched from April 3 to April 18, 2023, ended with a six-year contract that increased average annual wages from $16.74 to $19.40 and ensured annual raises for these essential RISD staff members. As the wages and dust and drums started to settle and as v.1’s Spring print edition was making its way to press, three of v.1’s editors took a moment to reflect for this online-only coverage.

Strike Coverage

1. Coming Soon - Drumming Up: The Sounds of the Strike

2. We Strike for Workers’ Rights!

3. A Matter of Facts

We Strike for Workers’ Rights!

Karina Garbarini
→FAV 2024

From late March into mid-April, almost everything coming from RISD students on Instagram was about the strike. Memes, numbers and data, event information, posters, photos of the picket line, and more could be found in an instant. In response to a quickly changing situation, student organizers and the Teamsters Local 251 used the power of social media to share and quickly disseminate information. Throughout the majority of the negotiation process, it seemed the opposite was happening on the side of the RISD administration. Generic and vague language such as “behind-closed-doors discussions,” “operating in good faith,” and “fair and sustainable outcome,” issued forth from the President’s and HR’s email accounts. While the intent may have been to preserve privacy in labor negotiations, the opacity built a wedge between the administration and the student body, who overwhelmingly supported the facilities workers.

Coming right after the expensive identity design that was launched in the fall, the inauguration of President Crystal Williams, and the announcement of another tuition increase , the strike felt like a massive gust in a perfect storm. Enraged at the prospect of essential workers on campus being paid less than a living wage while funneling $80K a year towards RISD, students showed up in increasingly large numbers to join the Teamsters at the picket line outside of ProvWash. Equipped with electric instruments and amplifiers, pots and pans, buckets, pieces of wood, megaphones, bass drums, whistles, and more, we made noise that could be heard from downtown all the way up the hill. Students could be seen chanting, handing out water bottles, snacks, and ear plugs; weaving through traffic giving flyers to drivers. Student-made posters and prints were pasted on every surface on campus, most of all on ProvWash itself. A giant inflatable pig in a suit, representing corporate greed, glared into the main administrative building’s front doors.

Despite the blazing sun and a high of 90F on Friday, April 14, the walkout and rally at Prov Wash was the largest yet. I had heard of preparations all week. Rumors that the Painting department would be spraying fart spray in RISD buildings was one of my favorites. The day of, I arrived at 1 PM,  snagged a spot banging on a huge drum with one of my friends, and found myself looking around in awe. Our synchronized rhythms boomed through the buildings. Some students drove around waving banners and honking their horns. Some handed out sunscreen. A friend of mine spritzed people with water, relieving the intense heat, receiving laughter and thanks. Eventually, some students made their way to Market Square to rally there. Nothing compared to the procession as they wove their way up to Benefit Street and back down the hill, reuniting with the main group outside of ProvWash. I remember staring with a huge smile on my face at the massive train of students slowly making their way down the sidewalk of Waterman St. It seemed to be a never-ending flow of students, and it was only about half of the students that had joined the rallies that day.

In my three years at RISD, I’ve never seen students come together in this way. Normally fragmented by majors, studios, and grades, we saw our boundaries dissolve in our show of full support. I couldn’t help but wonder: How was it that we were able to collaborate and support not only the facilities workers but each other unlike ever before?

There may be many answers to this question, including the institutional and financial issues leading up to the perfect storm, but I think a lot of our collective energy reflected how the strike felt personal. Facilities workers are at the center of this institution. They’re the ones who make it possible for us to survive and fulfill our basic needs in the midst of all of our learning, thinking, and making. They participate in the environment of the school just as much as we do, and like us, they are here at all hours of the day. I remember pulling all-nighters in my dorm in Nickerson freshman year, hearing the custodial staff begin their work at 3 or 4 in the morning. I remember waving and smiling hello to the same few workers on my way to the bathroom or out the door when I lived in Barstow House. I’m sure that these encounters and appreciation resonate with most of us at RISD. The fact that these amazing people, essential to our living and schooling, weren’t being paid what they deserve just felt wrong, both logically and emotionally. The emotional response of the strike propelled us forward to stand in solidarity with the workers and at the same time to stand up for ourselves and what we believe in, in what we believe RISD should stand for and look like.

Hearing the news on April 18 (at the time of writing) that the Teamsters and RISD have reached an agreement and that our facilities workers will be paid what they need, I am overjoyed. I realized that we do have the power to demand and create change. It felt good to feel our power, frustration, anger, dedication, and determination. It felt good to come together as one, for an important purpose and essential people. When we come together to stand for what we believe in, truly amazing things can happen. Seeing the student solidarity with RISD’s facilities team has given me a renewed sense of hope and faith in the power of student organizing and each other. In a time when students have been questioning our ability to make our voices known to the higher-ups, I have hope that we might be able to make our voices heard on many matters of concern. I’ve never felt prouder to be a RISD student.

A Matter of Facts

Maxwell Fertik
MFA 2023

Now that crits and commencement are over, allow yourself a moment of reflection. A strike happened this semester. It ended successfully for the Teamster 251 Union. The posters have been quietly taken down and students are basically all gone. But there are lessons we will not forget. If there is one I hope we all remember in particular, it is simply that in the face of confusion and lack of clear information around the strike, RISD students went out of their way to seek out and share the facts.

For most of us, emails from HR and the President’s Office were the primary source of information about what was going on with the strike. But, while repeatedly citing “good faith,” the language of these emails was opaque. They included phrases like “unreasonable demands related to benefits and excessive demands for compensation” (3/22) and “unwilling to have productive discussions about wages and benefits” (3/31) that took sides (fair enough) but also provided no concrete financial information through which anyone might better understand what was actually at stake. This lack of transparency gave the impression that everything had to stay behind the closed doors of a negotiation table. Students were not having it.

After receiving these emails and repeatedly getting bounced around campus by RISD administration when she inquired about details, Sarah Alix Mann (MID ’24) took it upon herself to get information from the union itself. It was Day 3 of the strike when Sarah went down to the picket line and spoke to a Teamsters leader who was happy to talk and share a binder full of information and data tables. She asked if sharing this type of information was okay and he said yes, please share. This data soon became the prominent series of bright yellow posters put together by a team of first-year Industrial Design graduate students. At last, some basic, clear accounting!

Suddenly Sarah had an idea. Inspired by the monumental, reply-all “Nah this ain’t it” message (3/25) from student Isaiah Raines (aka Prophet) that was approved by an unknown Student Affairs moderator and sent to the entire RISD community, Sarah wrote an open letter to President Williams disputing RISD’s claims that financial and negotiation information “cannot be shared publicly” (4/7) despite the union saying and doing otherwise. The letter ends by stating, “We are ready for your actions to align with your words” and a request for a detailed response. Sarah’s attempt to email to all RISD addresses her letter about transparency was, it turned out, blocked by account administrators.

And so, she tried another way, posting the letter around campus as an analogue “Re:[Students].”

So again, here’s the lesson: students want information about their institution and its issues, and they will figure out how to get it. Which begs the question: why not just make it available in the first place? Wouldn’t that be an apt expression of “good faith”?