By restricting strikes, Princeton silences workers' free speech
Apr 27, 2023
Published in The Daily Princetonian.
Free speech is understood to be a central tenet of academic life at Princeton. Members of the University across the political spectrum have considered how free speech can and should be upheld on campus while maintaining a safe environment. But these conversations have failed to include an essential part of our campus community: workers. Until the University removes the ban on worker strikes, its commitment to free speech will remain hollow.
Members of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 175 (a union on campus that includes dining hall, custodial, and landscaping staff, among others) are unable to fully access their right to free speech. Workplace discussions about organizing are limited, and their freedom of expression is sharply restricted as well. Article 35 of their contract with the University prohibits the Union and employees from participating in “any strike, sympathy strike, work stoppage, concentrated slowdown, refusal to cross any picket line or interrupt work in any other way.”
Article 35 is justified under the University’s Statement on Freedom of Expression, which protects free speech unless it is “directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.” The University’s statement claims this is a “narrow exception to the general principle of freedom of expression.” However, strikes are one of the most meaningful and impactful practices of free speech.
Free speech has played a vital role in unionization and workers’ rights movements. In the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an organization that advocated for workplace democracy through general and industrial unionism, engaged in a series of “free speech fights.” Members of the IWW spoke out and organized strikes across the United States, often resulting in their arrest. Many organizers refused to be released from prison and demanded a trial as a platform to advocate for both free speech and the right to strike and unionize.
Working conditions improved during the Progressive Era as the federal government was forced to make concessions to labor organizations in the face of strikes and other forms of union activism. For example, in the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, mill workers who were predominantly immigrant women went on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, after their wages were decreased. 23,000 workers went on strike and almost 20,000 were on the picket line. Ultimately, the Bread and Roses Strike increased not only their own wages, but the wages of textile workers across New England.
Labor activism has played a critical role in achieving many of the labor protections which we take for granted, including weekends, overtime pay, and the elimination of child labor. Without the ability to strike, SEIU Local 175 is significantly disempowered in their contract negotiations with the University.
To investigate the state of worker satisfaction on campus, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) at Princeton surveyed 116 union service workers during the Spring 2023 semester. On one hand, the survey found that most workers seemed grateful that the University offered relatively good non-wage benefits. However, as expressed by Abdul-Bassit Fijabi ‘24 and David Beeson ‘26 in a separate piece, surveyed workers have consistently expressed concerns; for example, some noted that they are woefully underpaid – especially in a time of high inflation – as staffing shortages and a sense of alienation plague many union shops on campus.
SEIU Local 175, which employs over 700 employees at Princeton University, makes active efforts to improve working conditions and wages for unionized workers. As one worker expressed, the union “[f]ights for all employees and has… sav[ed] employees’ jobs”; and as another notes, the union has “done well with getting us increased raise amounts over the past couple years.”
Yet, these aims are severely limited by the imbalance of power in the contract negotiations between the University and the Union, particularly when the University bans free expression in the form of a strike.
In the United States overall, unions consistently demonstrate strong benefits for workers, including up to a 20 percent income premium compared to similar non-union workers. Unions, moreover, demonstrate comparable lifetime earnings gains to those of a college degree despite earlier retirement, with a major part of the causal mechanism being the strike. As demonstrated by economist David Card, strikes in the US have historically had significantly positive effects on unionized workers’ wages, and such strikes were deeply intertwined with empowered labor unions.
Within the University of California system, this freedom of expression enabled educators to gain substantial improvements to students’ education quality and their workplace conditions, with 48 percent higher minimum wages for teaching assistants and 61 percent for graduate students. In 2022, even the mere threat of a strike among Kaiser Permanente nurses resulted in major improvements for both workers and patients, with 22.5 percent higher pay and improved staffing to provide improved patient care. More recently, though the fight continues, the Rutgers strike enabled faculty and graduate students to make strong gains, including 14 to 44 percent higher wages, after the Rutgers University administration simply refused to make reasonable concessions for its employees to see decent compensation for their contributions, by extension ensuring that educators can better serve their mentees.
With the no-strike clause in Article 35, SEIU Local 175 and the workers it represents have less power in their negotiations with the University, as they lack one of the most “powerful tool[s] for any union [to] express its voice,” as put by an anonymous employee. If the University disagrees with a demand, the union cannot effectively use its leverage to encourage the University to listen to workers.
This unconscionable restriction sharply contradicts the University’s romanticized rhetoric about its free speech policies, preventing workers from freely expressing themselves. Free speech is an essential value that must be accessible to everyone, including workers and including for expression that challenges Princeton University, if it is to truly value free expression. Even some past Supreme Court rulings have protected the right to strike on the grounds of protecting workers’ freedom of expression, such as Thornhill v. Alabama (1940) and NLRB v. Washington Aluminum Co. (1962).
Although workers are severely limited in the extent of free expression permitted by the University, students do have the ability to platform the unheard grievances of workers. By acting in solidarity with the employees who sustain our education and living as students, we can show that students will not accept the University’s neglect and disrespect of workers’ needs and free speech principles.
We encourage you to sign on to student groups’ petition for the University to address campus workers’ needs. Additionally, please join YDSA on May 1st to amplify workers’ grievances as a part of Unidad Latina en Acción’s May Day Rally, starting at 112 Witherspoon St on May 1 at 6:00 pm.
Lucía Armengol ‘26 and Bryce Springfield ‘25 are members of Young Democratic Socialists of America at Princeton. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of SEIU 175. This article was written alongside another in a series on campus labor.