By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
OXFORD - They're both single mothers and food service workers at Miami University, among the lowest-paid employees at the institution. Each lives paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep up with monthly bills. And both belong to Miami's support staff union. But when the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 209 rejected the university's final contract offer Sept. 25, Vanessa Richardson picked the only option that made sense to her: Hold a picket sign and show her 7-year-old daughter that it's important to stick up for yourself.
Holly Steele chose to go back to work, accepting the salary that keeps food on her first-grader's plate.
"Sometimes in life you have to stand up for what you believe is right," said Richardson, of Hamilton. "You can't just let people take advantage of you, whether it's a corporation or a business or people."
But Steele, who lives in Oxford, said she couldn't count on anyone else to pay the rent.
"It's either stay, make the money and have your insurance, or go on strike and have no money coming in, lose my house, lose my car, lose everything," the 30-year-old said.
It has been 10 days since union members voted to support the first-ever strike at Miami, causing the most contentious labor dispute in campus history. The strike has captured national attention.
On Friday, professors rallied in their graduation regalia to endorse union efforts while Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, donated $10,000 to strikers.
Some have gone so far as to characterize the schism between worker and picket as dramatically as the split between North and South during the Civil War, with quarreling among family members over whether to strike or to return to the job.
But for these two women, every day is about getting by.
Richardson plans to divvy up the last paycheck she received Friday between bills and a trip to the grocery to fill a sparse pantry. She and the estimated 400-plus people that the union says are picketing must wait at least 15 days after the start of the strike to take canned goods from the relief effort. But she's OK for now, she said.
Getting out the message about low wages - which has been the strikers' contention since contract negotiations with Miami began - is what's important.
That's why after getting Lynsey, her 7-year-old daughter, off to school by 8:20 a.m. she's on the picket line. She stands shoulder to shoulder with a handful of other women, holding green-and-white signs and smoking on the sidewalk near Martin Dining Hall. Trying to keep warm, they pass around hot chocolate and give one striker a few dollars for gas money.
"I've been here for 10 years, and I make $9.25 an hour," Richardson said. "That's just over $17,000 a year before taxes. I can't afford braces, and I can't afford cavities being fixed. That's why I'm standing here."
Richardson says she has always struggled. Her grown children never played sports or went to the prom because she couldn't afford it, she said. She lives with her boyfriend and her sister to spread out the bills. Lynsey gets a free lunch at school.
Richardson says she isn't asking for anything extravagant, just a "living wage," which has been the union's mantra.
"It makes me feel bad about myself," she said. "It makes me feel like I'm not doing my job as a parent. And I wouldn't have told people that until now because I didn't want people to think bad of me."
No new negotiations are scheduled, but the administration announced last week that Miami would continue the health care insurance, dental coverage and other benefits of striking workers through October. As one school official put it, losing benefits would have meant striking employees - already without a paycheck - would have had to pay hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets for coverage or live without insurance.
Even though the union rejected the university's contract offer, which included, among other things, a 4.25 percent raise, school officials announced in September that the pay increase would be implemented for the nearly 860 hourly workers represented by the union.
For Steele, that salary increase, coupled with guaranteed caps on insurance, was a deal worth taking.
"I agreed with the contract," Steele said, adding that she voted to accept it. "I would like to be making more money, but you can't have everything. I have a son to raise, and I don't have any money saved up. I think Miami was trying to come up with an agreement that was reasonable."
Steele said she understands the struggles many of her co-workers face.
"You rob Peter to pay Paul," she said, adding that she understands why some long-time employees want more money. "They know me by name at American Cash Advance."
As a three-year employee, though, she thought the offer, which brought her up to $9.09 an hour, was acceptable. It's better than what she earned after four years at a Bob Evans restaurant.
"If you get a job anywhere in Oxford, you're not going to get $9.09 starting out," she said. "I'm not saying that I don't want more, but I'd rather be making $9.09 there than six-something somewhere else."
Steele plans to stay in the union despite her opposition to the strike.
"In the long run, if something happens and I get in trouble at work, then you have a union person that sits in and fights for you," she said.
School officials say students have seen little impact. Staffing in the two major departments affected by the strike - physical facilities; and housing, dining, and guest services - is at about two-thirds the normal level. Building services are being maintained with bathrooms, hallways, and public areas given first priority. And dining halls are offering 80 percent of the usual menu items.
Miami hired about 100 temporary workers to keep the campus running smoothly. And Richard Little, a Miami spokesman, said strikers are trickling back to their jobs. Since Sept. 5, 92 people have filled out paperwork to have the university stop taking union dues out of their paychecks, Little said.
"People come back every day," he said.
That, however, hasn't weakened the resolve of strikers like Richardson.
"We're going to strike as long as it takes," she said.
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