Over 600 students, faculty, and Providence locals joined a walkout at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design (RISD) last week in support of striking workers involved in ongoing union contract negotiations with the art school’s administration.
The workers, represented by the Teamsters Local 251 chapter and spanning groundskeeping, operations, and maintenance, went on strike April 3.
Organizers have been in contract negotiations since June 2022 over wages increases, seeking an hourly wage increase from the current $16.74 average of a RISD custodian or groundskeeper to a $20 hourly minimum. The strike authorization followed a halt in negotiations with the school’s administration in mid-February.
On April 12, RISD students walked out in a show of support for the workers. The following day, the school’s president, Crystal Williams, defended the school’s offer of an average wage of $17.90 per hour for the school’s lowest-paid maintenance workers, describing it in a statement as “a fair and reasonable resolution.”
RISD faculty accommodated student demonstrators, an action supported by some RISD officials in public statements. RISD’s Full-Time Faculty Association, the union representing RISD’s full-time faculty, moved to support the strike, the Brown Daily Herald reported last week. Members of the Providence City Council encouraged Williams and RISD’s board of trustees to move forward with “honest negotiations” in a letter issued on April 10.
A spokesperson for RISD told ARTnews the school’s officials are meeting with Teamsters Local 251 leadership on Monday “in hopes of coming to a final agreement.”
Matthew Maini, a representative for the Teamsters Local 251 told The Art Newspaper that the strike is aimed at Williams, who took up the position as the school’s president in April last year, citing her role’s $600,000 salary and rent-free living accommodations as prompting the action.
Prior to the strike, RISD students distributed a petition that has drawn more than 3,000 signatures calling for the university to meet the union’s wage requests and provide reasoning for proposal rejections. The petition criticized RISD’s handling of the negotiations and funding priorities saying: “The more money RISD pours to temporary solutions, shows the more blatant exploitation and denial of workers rights RISD upholds.”
In public documents related to RISD’s now $440 million endowment and $161 million operating budget from 2020, the school said it “relies on students to fund the majority of the institutions operating costs.”
In a statement released on April 10, the school said “we respect our workers’ right to strike, but are disappointed the union is choosing to do this rather than discussing reasonable wages and benefits with us.”
The strikes follows widespread unionizing efforts across arts institutions in the last year. In December, a 25-day strike among staff at the New School in New York and Parsons School of Design over contract negotiations related to wages led to a successful contract update. The negotiation ended the longest adjunct faculty strike to date in the US.