Students, custodial staff, and other community members protest at the Saturday, September 21 evening football game.
This is Part III of a trilogy of posts addressing the problems faced by Wesleyan’s contracted custodial labor. Part I discussed why the University contracts custodial staff, and how they ended up employing Sun Services. Part II involves the custodial staff’s protests in summer 2013 and how both the University and Sun Services responded – or did not respond. This post, Part III, covers the current state of affairs in late September 2013, focusing on what we – as students, community members, faculty, and staff – can do to help.
If you didn’t yet read parts I and II, that’s fine; this is the most important of the three posts. But a few points to cover what was discussed in the last two:
- By contracting custodial labor, the University avoids bad publicity, diffuses blame, avoids being the recipient of pointed fingers, and divides custodial staff from students, faculty, and staff. The University and Sun Services have bounced complaints about working conditions back and forth between them throughout the last year or so, and few changes have been made.
- The custodial staff are being stretched too thin. This was an issue under ABM Industries (the custodial contractor before Sun Services) and continues to be an issue today. Because of point #1, it is hard to figure out whether the University or the contractor is to blame for this.
- The current staff of 50 feel that their workload is unreasonable. Sun Services says that it is reasonable. The union can’t do anything until it has evidence of unreasonable working conditions. The University avoids all questions and discussions about the issue, batting them to Sun Services.
Part III: Working Conditions Today and What You Can Do To Help
Q: You said in the last post that the custodians have been pressured to signing onto unreasonable positions. What are some examples of the new working schedules to which custodians have been assigned?
A: There are two custodians who are in charge of cleaning all the Foss Hill dorms – this means WestCo 1-4, Nics 5-7, and Hewitt 8-10. They clean these daily. The title of this post series comes about because, when there are only two people cleaning 10 dorms, bathrooms get quite dark indeed.
While there were once several custodians who cleaned the Butts, there are now two custodians in charge of cleaning Butt A, Butt B, and Butt C daily. This means probably upwards of 90 bathrooms, a hundred hallways, dozens of lounges, three kitchens, and three laundry rooms, among others. Keep in mind that, if you’re a junior or senior, the Butts that you remember housed far fewer people than the Butts that these custodians clean now.
One custodian is in charge of cleaning Farm House, Buddhist House, Full/Writing House, Music House, La Casa, Art/Light House, Russian House, and University Relations – every day.
- Empty wastebaskets
- Damp wipe trash cans
- Reinstall liners
- Bring the trash to the dumpster
- Spot clean doors and surfaces
- Clean drinking fountains
- Vacuum all carpets in common areas
- Vacuum under desk and tables
- Clean carpet spots smaller than one foot
- Damp-mop hard surface floors
- Reposition all furniture correctly
…and they must do all this in 7 ½ hours. Or they risk a reprimand.
Q: That’s… not possible.
Q: Is there anything that can be done about this?
A: Yes, there is.
When the new positions for the custodial staff went into effect at the beginning of September, it was with the promise that Sun Services would reassess the situation in 30 days. Those 30 days expire this Tuesday – October 1. If it becomes apparent that the new plans do not work, perhaps Sun Services will effect changes in their policies.
To that end, students can call x3400 – (860) 685-3400, from non-campus phones – to register a complaint with Physical Plant. Students should call any time – but especially between the hours of 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM – if they see something dirty.
Q: But won’t calling Physical Plant about dirty spaces get the workers in trouble?
A: No. Physical Plant is documenting student, faculty, and staff complaints as evidence that the work schedules put in motion in early September are not feasible. Workers will not get admonishments from Sun Services if you call Physical Plant.
Q: What’s the goal here? What are the custodians trying to accomplish?
A: Ideally, they would like to have 10 more custodians hired to replace the 10 who retired or moved on due to attrition. Realizing that this is unlikely, they would at least like 5 custodians – without a corresponding increase in work, obviously. These 5 custodians could take some of the burden off those with more egregious work plans, like the ones described above.
Q: What is USLAC? You’ve discussed them a lot.
A: In their own words, “the United Student Labor-Action Coalition, is a group of students at Wesleyan University dedicated to ensuring fair labor practices and economic justice for those employed, directly or indirectly, by Wesleyan University. We work in solidarity with workers to aid them in their goals and support their struggles for fairness and justice.”
Q: What has USLAC been doing to raise awareness for this issue?
A: USLAC has been doing a number of things. For one, they have been holding regular meetings, including one two Fridays ago on September 20 during which USLAC members and students sat in 200 Church and talked with custodial workers during the lunch hour.
They also held a rally for worker solidarity at the night football game against Tufts on Saturday, September 21. This entailed about 30 community members – including students, Bon Appétit workers, and Middletown residents – who dropped banners from PAC and distributed the flyer displayed above.
“I had people who were very sympathetic to the cause [and] other people who mocked me because I am personally not a custodian, and they said, ‘How can you possibly claim to be standing in solidarity with custodians or other workers at Wesleyan?’” Ebstein said. “Most people were just genuinely unaware of the issue because these are people who mostly clean in the night when they’re not around, or the alumni aren’t on campus, so they were interested in the civic action. Most, I think, wanted to know more and were just unaware of what’s been going on.”
So, if the goal of the protest was to raise awareness for the situation of the custodial staff, I’d say yes, it probably was.
Q: How can I join USLAC?
A: The best way is to join the USLAC listserv. To join the USLAC listserv, email uslac-subscribe[at]lists.riseup[dot]net. You should get a confirmation email. If you do not, go to Rise Up‘s homepage. If you already have a password on Rise Up, sign in, type USLAC into the box, and then click “Subscribe” on the left-hand column. If you do not have a password, click “First Login?” on the left-hand column and then follow the instructions in your email to log in. You do not have to register your email via Rise Up to subscribe to the listserv.
If you have trouble, email Susannah Greenblatt ’16 at sgreenblatt[at]wesleyan[dot]edu.
Q: What should I do if I see a custodian?
A: Talk to them. Express solidarity with them when you run into them – especially if you see them in an area with few people. The emotional toll of the new positions is often overlooked; many of the custodians work alone, trying to complete impossibly large workloads in a mere 7 ½ hours. It’s a real morale booster to have someone say, “Hey, I really appreciate your work and I will do what I can to make your job easier.”
Additionally, the custodians benefit from student support. At the USLAC meeting on September 20, the custodians emphasized how much easier it is for their voices to be heard when supplemented by those of students. There is a reason that Sun Services makes its changes over breaks, when students aren’t on campus. Student solidarity is important and really helps – especially when it comes to bringing the university’s administration into the conversation.
Q: What else can I do to help?
A: Sun Services, ironically, gives us a suggestion at the end of their above letter:
Wesleyan students can also help the custodians during this time of transition. Many of the custodians are subject to extra work when students do not clean up after themselves. Most custodians will not notify us that they are required to clean well beyond the scope of work because of their relationship with the students. This causes them a great hardship and is work they are not scheduled to do. If Wesleyan students could recognize this and help in this one small way they could help immensely.
Like the letter above, the above paragraph contains a number of linguistic contortions to try and deflect blame from Sun Services. When read in conjunction sentences like “Positions… [are] sent to the union for review to make sure they fall within the confines of acceptable industry standards for custodial workloads and that all positions are fair and equitable,” statements about how custodians are overburdened because students do not clean up after themselves seem to be a way to blame the difficult custodial conditions on students, not on the reorganization process that Sun claims was equitable and reasonable over the protests of the workers themselves. Statements about how the workers are “not scheduled” to clean up after students suggest that the flexibility usually built into work plans to allow for unexpected deviations from the routine are absent from Sun Service’s positions.
However, if we can ignore the deflection of blame for a moment, we can see that Sun Services makes a legitimate point – one which Kennedy Odede ‘12 eloquently made in a March 2012 Wespeak:
At Wesleyan, we sympathize with custodians, but behind their backs we throw beer bottles and soda cans everywhere. On the weekend nights, you’ll see the campus trashed with debris, but in the morning when we sleepily arise and head to Usdan for our 11 a.m. brunch, the trash has disappeared. The custodians have come at sunrise to keep the grounds pristine and bucolic. Here we are living in what French philosopher Michel Foucault would quickly call a “Utopian world.” I’m ready to graduate for many reasons, but part of me is also scared, as I know that the Wesleyan world will not exist for me on the outside.
Here at Wesleyan, we talk of caring so much about social justice. Do our actions resemble our words? It seems that we care about our janitors, as there is a petition circulating that accuses the administration of not doing its part to support the staff. I full-heartedly support the notion that Wesleyan should treat all employees with respect and dignity. It’s good to keep the administration on its toes.
However, are we not the ones who misuse facilities, especially when we are drunk or litter, and still expect the people we are fighting for to come to clean our mess? Are we not the ones who cook in the kitchen and expect someone to come and clean our dishes after we leave them for a week?
If all of this is fact, then we need to reexamine the situation. Let’s show the administration how much we care, and, through our collective action, demonstrate that it must follow our example. For us to move forward, we must accept that we are the privileged intellectual elite. To complement the petition addressing the administration, let’s address ourselves. Let’s create a petition stating, “I sign up to be mindful of what I’m doing and to never to add more unnecessary work for our beloved custodians.” I promise to be the first one to sign.
Nothing gets cleaned without a cost. While I think that Sun Services should build time into custodial schedules for situations where custodians have to unexpectedly “clean beyond the scope of [their] work,” it is also our responsibility as students to take responsibility for our own actions. When you have a rough night and vomit in the bathroom or spill food on the floor of your hallway, someone is going to have to clean it up if you do not – and that person is likely overworked already and would greatly appreciate it if you would take the initiative and deal with your own mess. The custodians are part of our community too, and we should treat them as such.
Q: This all makes sense. But I’m still confused about one thing. Even though the University has the ability to pass blame for custodial conditions back and forth with Sun Services, how can they morally justify looking the other way while their custodial staff protest and suffer?
A: One of the custodians had a meeting with John Meerts, the Chief Financial Officer at Wesleyan. He defended the University’s inaction by saying that, were Sun Services to hire more custodians, someone would have to pay for the contractual breach. This is because Sun Services and Wesleyan have a contract that prevents the hiring of more custodians, in an effort by the University to keep costs down – hence the conflicts of August 2012 and June 2013. In order to hire more workers, Wesleyan and Sun would have to agree to break their contract and draw up a new one. Both sides would need to hire lawyers, which would be an extra cost on top of the more expensive contract that would result after the negotiations.
Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14, a USLAC member, points out, however, that this idea of paying for the contractual breach between Wesleyan and Sun Services leaves out that the contracts held by the workers were already breached when Sun Services pressured them into signing onto unreasonable positions, and that the custodial staff is already paying for it. “These contracts are mutually exclusive,” Alma explained. “One says, ‘We want to get this job done with 50 workers,’ and the other says, ‘Workers shall not be given unreasonable workloads.’ The idea that someone isn’t paying now is ridiculous. The workers may not be paying with money, but they are paying – with their bodies and mental health. The money that Wesleyan is saving cannot be worth that.”
Q: Wow. For a university that loves to talk about social justice, their position on this is pretty hypocritical, isn’t it?
A: As a response to your rhetorical question, I offer you an anecdote.
Every year, President Roth gives a speech. These speeches vary slightly year to year, but the central messages are always the same: fight inequality and privilege, and be the change you want to see in the world. However, this model speech betrays a deep contradiction at Wesleyan that I started to address above in slightly different words: How can an institution that looks the other way instead of trying to change for the better the lives of its workers justify telling us to “be the change” when we graduate?
My answer? It cannot. If Wesleyan wants to tell us to be the change once we graduate, that’s fine. It’s a good lesson, and many of us will go into the world to try and make it better; organizations like SHOFCO, Brighter Dawns, and The MINDS Foundation are only a few examples of Wesleyan students working worldwide to improve lives. But the University should not continue to engage in the hypocrisy of telling its graduates to change the world while ignoring those injustices that it inflicts – directly or indirectly – upon its own workers daily.
Let’s hold a mirror to Wesleyan’s administration. When the University asks us to “be the change,” we should pressure them to take their own advice as well – to “be the change” in the small community that they run. We need to add our voices to those of the custodians. We need to demand that the staff who work to keep our school clean are safe and healthy. We need to demand that they have a say in their workplace. We need to demand that they be treated fairly.
President Roth, you have asked every class before us to “be the change” upon their leaving Wesleyan. You have asked all of them to go into the world and eliminate injustice. You have told us to carry that unique spirit that Wesleyan has instilled in us into the world, and to make it a better place. But we don’t need to wait until graduation. Wesleyan may send us mixed messages, but we have taken away the correct ones. We want to be the change. We want to eliminate injustice. We want to make the world a better place.
Why not start here? Why not start now?
This ends Part III, but not our coverage of this issue. If you have not yet read Part I and Part II, check them out. If you are interested in this issue, I occur you to read the below articles. The Argus and The Middletown Press have done some exemplary reporting on this issue, which was crucial in my completing this article.
BZOD EDIT, 9/29/13, 7:21 PM: Added the question “What’s the goal here? What are the custodians trying to accomplish?” at the top of this post after feedback that the end goals of the protests is unclear.
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Listed below are some related posts from a number of sources, listed in reverse chronological order. Unattributed links are Wesleying posts.
The Argus: Community Members Rally for Worker Solidarity at Football Game
This Is Why Not: A Guest Post by Cesar Chavez ’15 about the Custodial Staff’s Situation
The Argus: Custodians Rally For Smaller Workloads, Increased Work Force
Wesleyan’s Custodial Workers Protest Working Conditions, Employee Cuts Outside Roth’s House on Lunch Break
The Middletown Press: Wesleyan custodians continue protests for better conditions
The Middletown Press: Wesleyan custodians decry conditions, cuts
The Argus: Custodial Workers Allege Lack of Pay
Sign Petition to Save Wesleyan’s Custodial Workers
The Argus: Sun Services Wins Custodial Contract
The Argus, Wespeak: Power and Hypocrisy at Wesleyan
The Argus, Wespeak: Support Wesleyan’s Janitorial Staff
The Argus: ABM Contract Up for Grabs: Custodians Report Increased Workloads, Students React
Support Wesleyan’s Janitorial Staff – PETITION