After University custodians accused their supervisor of mistreatment, students began to translate testimonies of abuse this week to initiate a union investigation. The involved students are tutors in the English as a Second Language (ESL) class and members of the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC).
Charges are being brought against one of the three campus custodial supervisors, Zbignein (Ziggy) Gryko, who some janitors say treats his workers unfairly with respect to labor load, verbal abuse and hiring practices.
“He’s referred to my friend as a ‘dirty n—–,’” said one worker.
Another said that Gryko punishes employees by giving them heavy-duty jobs that have caused some workers to suffer injuries.
Employees have additionally claimed that this summer Gryko was violating their contracts by hiring and firing temporary workers to prevent them from staying for over 31 days at a time, which would allow them to be permanently contracted and thus receive higher pay.
Two weeks ago the American Building Maintenance (ABM) company, which supplies Wesleyan’s custodial labor, made a preliminary inquiry in response to a workers’ petition. No action was taken after the inquiry, and many of the workers claim that the interviews carried out were unfair and unrepresentative.
All of the 12 janitors under Gryko are native Spanish speakers and many are enrolled in the student-taught ESL class. They said that the hiring interviews were conducted with interpreters who spoke poor Spanish and have consistently sided with Gryko in the past.
Issues of fair worker treatment were first brought to the attention of Sasha Freudenberg ’05, the USLAC liaison for ESL, earlier this semester when a worker asked him to help translate the petition against Gryko.
“The custodians here work hard to take care of us and their own families,” Freudenberg said. “They should be treated with the dignity that they demonstrate every day.”
Although the complaints are primarily under the jurisdiction of the ABM and the janitors union Local 32BJ, Freudenberg and other students hope to pressure these institutions to perform a detailed investigation and remove Gryko from his position.
Nine of the 12 employees who work under Gryko and over 30 other employees signed the petition, which they sent to ABM and union representatives. Although the petition acknowledged that there have been problems for the past three years, it did not illuminate on them. The new testimonies, in contrast, record specific instances of abuse.
One janitor said she was cleaning when she accidentally got an acidic cleanser in her eyes. She had to go to the hospital and could not get Gryko to write a health coverage note to say that the accident occurred on the job. Gryko also refused to bring her to the emergency room to treat her injury.
All workers requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. After the petition was sent out, various janitors said that Gryko followed them and verbally harassed them for signing it.
“Before we weren’t united, but now we are and we don’t want games, we’re ready to fight,” said one worker. “We want neutral translators who can accurately speak Spanish.”
Another member of Gryko’s team explained that minor offenses have been building up over the past three years. Workers report that he often throws unprovoked fits of temper.
Gryko refused to comment on the allegations. One of his bosses, Fernando Campos, said that Gryko does his job fairly, and suggested that some of the janitors may have been pressured to sign the petition.
“He’s a nice guy, he does his job and I do mine,” Campos said. “When I need help he helps me. People signed some letters, but some never even worked for him. I think maybe some people forced them to sign.”
Campos and one of Gryko’s other superiors, Peter Caniano, served as the two translators during the initial inquiry conducted by ABM representative Maryellen Weiner.
Students from ESL and USLAC have not spoken to Gryko. According to Freudenberg, the custodians said they have gone to Gryko in the past and he had not been responsive, so they are focusing on higher union and ABM representatives.
“There have been many different issues that the workers have dealt with from Ziggy, ranging from racist comments to unfair hiring practices,” said ESL coordinator Daphne Clyburn ’07. “These issues have been building up in the past three years since he first became a supervisor.”
Last weekend the WSA passed a resolution on the matter and on Friday Freudenberg and Meggy Harvey ’07 met with Vice President for Finance and Administration Marcia Bromberg to discuss what the University could do. Although Bromberg maintained it is primarily under the authority of the union, she said that she would advise her colleagues to be vigilant of Gryko’s behavior.
“(USLAC) students have reported to us that one of the ABM supervisors is abusive with workers and that complaints filed against him through the union negotiated processes have not ended this abusiveness,” said Director of University Communications Justin Harmon. “We have asked our own staff to follow up on these charges. If the supervisor’s behavior is not acceptable, we will ask ABM to remove him from the Wesleyan campus.”
Associate Director of Physical Plant Jeff Miller, who works with Grykos, said that he was previously unaware of the complaints against the supervisor, but that Wesleyan would not tolerate inappropriate behavior by a manager.
“I am confident that ABM doesn’t condone inappropriate behavior of a manager either, and if they don’t do anything about it we need to know why,” Miller said.
At the beginning of this school year, Freudenberg gave a speech to the ESL class informing them of their rights as workers and telling them to go to him if they felt at any time those rights were being violated.
This inspired some of the workers to organize, even though they claim that Caniano had told them not to go to the students or complain to ABM customers or they would be fired.
“As a supervisor one must manage power, not abuse it,” one of the janitors said. “We have the right to a workplace where we feel respected and safe.”
Union representative Jose Rodriguez has been in contact with students and workers and is currently filing a formal grievance with the union. USLAC hopes to attach the testimonies they gather to this grievance.