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Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth workers’ unions are vulnerable in the coronavirus economy

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/28/2020 9:38:23 PM
Modified: 4/28/2020 9:38:21 PM

For more than 50 years, Dartmouth College’s blue-collar workers have been blessed with a strong labor union. (I suspect the billionaire bottom-liners on the college’s Board of Trustees, however, might not share the sentiment.)

With no end in sight to the economic catastrophe caused by the coronavirus, Dartmouth workers need Local 560 of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU, for short) more than ever.

The union’s leaders are bracing for July, when they expect Dartmouth to begin furloughing workers. “Nothing is set in stone, but I think that’s where we’re going,” Local 560 President Chris Peck, who has had talks with college officials, told me Monday.

The college’s response?

“There are too many uncertainties at this time to determine workforce projections after June 30,” college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence emailed me Tuesday.

It doesn’t get much more ominous than that.

The union represents nearly 450 college employees. Their ranks include 180 custodians, 130 dining services workers and assorted tradespeople.

From the pandemic’s outset, I’ve worried that big businesses — and make no mistake, Dartmouth is a big business — will use the crisis as cover to shed longtime employees who are deemed expendable. When the time is right, businesses can go about replacing them with hard-luck workers who have little choice but to settle for less pay and reduced benefits.

Peck, who has worked at the college for nearly 30 years as a painter, is determined the scenario doesn’t play out at Dartmouth.

But it gets tricky. The union’s three-year contract expires on June 30. Negotiations on a new deal were just beginning when the coronavirus struck.

Rather than trying to negotiate during the crisis, the two sides agreed to a one-year extension. But when they return to the bargaining table to work on a deal that will go into effect July 1, 2021, I think you can expect the college to play hardball. The billionaire alums who govern the school didn’t get rich by being overly generous to the rank and file.

In the meantime, the union will do everything in its power to stop the college from turning furloughs into permanent layoffs, Peck said. “Our current contract pretty much says if there’s work to be done, there can’t be layoffs,” he said.

From the union’s standpoint that means when students come back, so do all the workers. Until then, Peck hopes the college will see the need for custodians to continue working on a “deep clean” of dorms and classroom buildings while students are away. He figures maintenance on college grounds and athletic fields also must continue through the summer.

Then there’s Hanover County Club. Last week,the college announced the closing of its 18-hole golf course for the year due to the pandemic. Unless Dartmouth plans to turn the fairways into hay fields (or permanently close the course, which wouldn’t surprise me), union workers will need to keep mowing.

Under its agreement with Local 560, Dartmouth can hire outside contractors for some seasonal maintenance projects. In recent years, the college has brought in a Massachusetts contractor to do painting, Peck said.

Instead of hiring painters from outside the Upper Valley, Peck argues the college should use union workers who otherwise might be furloughed. “If we have people who are capable of doing the jobs with a little training, let us do the work,” he said.

Since the pandemic forced Dartmouth to shut down last month, union workers have continued to collect paychecks. (For their part, employees have used vacation time as well.)

“Dartmouth made a commitment in mid-March to keep all staff fully paid for 3½ months, through the end of fiscal year, despite the depth and suddenness of the economic downtown and the significant reduction in on-campus work and activity,” Lawrence wrote in her email.

“I give Dartmouth kudos so far,” Peck told me. “They’ve treated us fairly.”

Some union workers remain on the job, including the crew at the college’s power plant and kitchen workers who make meals for foreign students who couldn’t get home.

Under the union’s contract, employees are paid 1½ times their regular pay for providing “essential services when the college is closed due to an emergency.”

Like colleges across the country, Dartmouth is taking a financial hit during the pandemic. It lost more than $15 million in undergraduate room and board for the spring term. The summer term has been canceled, and although students are scheduled to return in September, it’s not a given.

Still, Dartmouth is in a much better position than most schools to weather the COVID-19 fallout.

In September, Dartmouth reported its endowment had grown to a record-high $5.7 billion — nearly double what it was a decade ago. The decline in financial markets has no doubt cut into the endowment’s gains, but it’s safe to bet that Dartmouth still ranks among the top 25 schools nationally.

On April 5, President Phil Hanlon mentioned in an email to the “Dartmouth community” that he was “giving back” 20% of his salary for the next 12 months. In 2017 — the most recent tax return available to the public — Hanlon received $1.4 million in total compensation, including a base salary of $1 million.

Union members will never be in Hanlon’s pay league, but by Upper Valley standards, the blue-collar jobs at Dartmouth pay better than most. The starting pay for dining hall workers is nearly $17 an hour, plus health insurance, vacation, retirement contributions and other benefits.

The economy is unlikely to rebound anytime soon, but will Dartmouth dip into its multibillion-dollar endowment to preserve the jobs of blue-collar workers?

I expect the college’s union has its work cut out.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

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