Staff salaries are more important than real estate

At issue: Building acquisition amid union negotiations

Our take: Now is not the time to snag another property

The college announced their decision to purchase a $24 million property facing Boston Common this week with the same spontaneity as a college student splurging on a Goodwill “Best Dad” coffee mug. And just like that student, the college has absolutely no idea what it will do with the purchase.

Since 2014, the college has piled on 2 Boylston Place, the Dining Center, Hemenway, Urban Arts, the new Cabaret and Fitness Center, the new Equipment Distribution Center, the new Visitor Center, 20 Park Plaza, and renovations to the Little Building and the Colonial Theater onto its heaving plate of real estate. The college’s purchase raises questions about allocation of money within the school, especially considering the college’s interactions with Service Employees International Union Local 888 union and their lengthy negotiations with staff—some of whom qualify for food stamps.

Furthermore, a 2013 compensation survey conducted by the college found 75 percent of employees at more than 30 peer schools are paid more than Emerson staff members in similar positions. This puts college employees in the 25th percentile for wages in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.  

Staff union members just want to be paid enough to afford housing in the same city where they work. According to union organizer Ron Patenaude, there have been at least 20 negotiations over the past year, and the school took three months to respond to just one of the union’s proposals. In sharp contrast, the college rushed to purchase the property at 171 Tremont Street, regardless of the $24 million price tag.

Our administration’s habit of taking on new projects without resolving old issues is troubling. On the surface, these upgrades to the college appear impressive. However, there are still many problems that need to be addressed. For one, before hiring new staff at higher wages, the school needs to address the problems of its existing underpaid employees. And when the administration neglects these issues, loyal staff continue to face the consequences in their own lives due to lack of sufficient pay.

It comes down to an idea that is startlingly simple: pay people their dues. Staff members perform technical tasks, and bring a certain level of expertise to their positions. So why aren’t they being paid enough to eat? Why are they being paid less than 75 percent of their peers? The priorities of the administration should not be buildings, but the people they house. Students can contribute by supporting union efforts and communicating with unions whenever possible, but ultimately, students cannot affect change alone. Emerson staff should be paid what they deserve, not abandoned in favor of spur-of-the moment acquisitions. We can’t call ourselves a community if we don’t look after our own.