Several important changes have recently been made to the University’s contract with Sun Services, which employs University custodial staff. These changes include plans to downsize the cleaning staff and to adjust their hours accordingly. The United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC), a student group that offers support and advocacy on behalf of University workers, has worked to prevent these changes from negatively impacting the University’s cleaning staff. As part of that effort, USLAC organized an all-workers meeting that took place on Oct. 23.
“The company will be downsizing by 10 full time positions,” reads a copy of USLAC notes on a union meeting held on Sept. 25. “Because they are not laying anyone off they will be doing this by attrition, which means that as workers retire, or decide to leave Wesleyan, or are fired with cause those positions will not be posted but instead will be absorbed by the remaining workforce. Since Sun started at [Wesleyan] one worker has decided to leave. Sun believes that the campus can be effectively cleaned with 48 full time workers.”
According to several members of USLAC, the transition to a contract under Sun Services management has created both benefits and challenges for the workers. For instance, some workers have expressed concerns that it will be harder to clean buildings with a smaller staff, especially as several workers are responsible for cleaning multiple buildings on their own.
“To an extent the working conditions of our custodians have improved, however, there are still many issues that have not been addressed such as the overworking of custodians and the lack of initiative on the part of Sun Services to hire more workers to pick up the slack,” wrote Cesar Chavez ’15, a member of USLAC, in an email to The Argus.
One of the main changes Sun Services has instituted is to introduce day cleaning; previously, the workers mostly cleaned buildings at night.
“The change from almost entirely night cleaning to day cleaning is something that has benefits but also challenges, in that it leads to a more cohesive workforce, and you know, greater visibility on campus is a good thing,” said Avital Robbins ’15, one of the co-leaders of USLAC. “One of the bad things is that a lot of night workers who had separate jobs have had their schedules messed around.”
Associate Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe expressed a different opinion regarding the transition.
“All of the contract custodians who were working at Wesleyan on May 1, 2012 when the Sun Services contract began, were hired by Sun Services,” Topshe wrote in an email to The Argus. “The Sun workers continue to be represented by the same union, SEIU 32BJ, and they retained all of their pay and benefits. In signing the contract, Sun agreed to make a good faith effort to find positions for every custodian within their organization, even if it meant transferring to another local client. Sun Services has honored this commitment and continues to do so.”
Both Chavez and Robbins expressed dissatisfaction at the way the University has handled protection of workers and said that it has taken a similar position to Sun Services in terms of their treatment.
“You see a similar sort of unclear communication from both the company [Sun Services] and from the administration as to what they’re going to do to make sure that it’s a fair workplace and to ensure that workloads are distributed fairly,” Robbins said.
Chavez said that the University emphasizes economic concerns over the workers themselves.
“Our University currently has a priority of saving money over improving the working conditions of its workers,” Chavez wrote. “Sun Services as a company has the same priority, they will do with what they have and induce the least costs to maximize their profits. This shows the neo-liberal mentality of not only businesses like Sun Services but also of our administration, they both put money ahead of people.”
Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14, one of the co-leaders of USLAC, said that the main issue is that the University has yet to cultivate a relationship with the custodial staff.
“[The University] doesn’t have a relationship with the workers…The University makes decisions in its own interest and doesn’t necessarily take into account workers’ interest,” Sanchez-Eppler said.
When asked about the main goal of USLAC at the moment, both Chavez and Robbins responded that USLAC is currently helping University workers hired by different companies to connect with each other and discover common goals.
“One of the biggest problems that we encountered in the past was that the other workers on campus, particularly Bon Appetit, wanted to relate and be closer to Sun Services workers,” Chavez wrote. “Another issue has been easing the tensions amongst Sun Services workers. Sometimes they are turned against each other or simply don’t get along given their different backgrounds.”
Robbins and Sanchez-Eppler said that they did not think that there was any serious source of tension between workers.
According to all three members who were interviewed, USLAC is not trying to create any goals for the workers, but rather to provide support for the workers as they determine their own goals.
“By no means are we trying to impose our beliefs of what [University workers] should be striving for, but rather uniting them so that they can figure out what their goals should be, collectively,” Chavez wrote. “At the same time it is important that the other workers on campus get to know their Sun Services peers so that they feel closer and can help one another when certain issues pop up, such as the incident this summer when Sun Services tried to lay off 10 workers.”
Robbins and Chavez expressed concern over the extent of the involvement of the union representing the workers, SEIU 32BJ, in efforts to ensure that the workers are treated fairly.
“There is concern among the workers that the union, at least so far, has not been able to put a quick enough stop to some of these changes,” Robbins said.
When asked about the administration’s involvement in the recent labor issues, Topshe referred The Argus to union representatives.
“The custodians who work for Sun Services are represented by a collective bargaining agreement which Sun Services is honoring,” Topshe wrote. “Wesleyan is not able to comment on issues between employers and their union.”
Sanchez-Eppler expressed hope that the University would seek to communicate more with custodians in the future, and regard them as contributors to the University community.
“I would like to see the University talking directly to workers, when they have an issue with workers, in a respectful manner, and not hiding behind collective bargaining rules,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “I would like to see… an effort to seek input from workers on what they need to get the job done… I would like to see workers viewed as an asset, because they are giving a service that is a valuable service, rather than have the University say, ‘These are buildings that need to be cleaned; here are bodies that can clean them.’”