The United Student Labor Coalition (USLAC) is planning a campaign for the week of Oct. 7-14, called the Week of Worker Solidarity Action (WOWSA). Next week, USLAC members will issue invitations to students, administrators, and professors to work alongside a Sun Services worker for two or three hours of their shift. This program is aimed to expose community members to the realities of the workers’ daily routines.
There will also be a meeting on Oct. 9 at which the custodial staff members will voice their complaints. Attendees will include a union representative from Sun Services, custodial workers, and some USLAC members. At the meeting, USLAC members and the workers plan to use Article 10 of the Sun Services workers’ contract (which states that workers should not be subjected to unreasonable workload) to argue against the current workloads. Also in attendance will be Sun Services stewards, union members that have been elected by other workers to voice the opinions of the larger group.
USLAC member Susannah Greenblatt ’16, who will attend the meeting, is eagerly anticipating its outcome.
“One thing that’s so cool about our relationship is that our living space is their workplace,” Greenblatt said. “That is an interesting way to think about how we share a space, and how we can work towards making those two environments, that are really the same environment, better.”
USLAC communicates with workers through two channels: the members’ individual relationships with workers, and student-worker meetings where workers can share their experiences. The goal of WOWSA is to encourage participation from all members of the community, therefore USLAC has decided to allow students to cover only a part of the workers’ shifts, which are typically four or more hours.
The idea for the WOWSA project originated from a conversation between a student and a worker. The student was curious about what the workload was really like, and the worker asked the student to try it out as a neutral third party.
“Instead of getting an avid USLAC member to try out the workload and report on it, why not get a bunch of students who have maybe never thought about labor activism to try out the workload?” Greenblatt asked. “We’re hoping to get kids to share their experiences, blog about them, and see whether or not they think it’s reasonable.”
USLAC operates as a coalition of volunteers rather than a hierarchically- structured student group. Though the group was created before Sun Services was the University’s primary custodial provider, the organization’s popularity has fluctuated based on student interest over the years. Currently, USLAC has an email list of over 200 students on campus and a large number of attendees at their weekly Friday meetings in the University Organizing Center (UOC).
Assistant to the Regional Organizer David Whitney ’16 said that it was most important to USLAC that connections be formed between workers and students in order for lasting change to be instated.
“The general idea…is to cultivate more of a sense of student-worker solidarity beyond the activist community who already considers themselves allies to the workers,” Whitney said. “We really believe that it affects all of us, and that we’re all responsible for how custodians are treated on our campus.”
To further cultivate relationships between workers and community members, USLAC is collaborating with the Office of Residential Life to plan “Meet Your Custodian” events. Similar to the student-worker activities taking place during WOWSA, these meetings will give students the opportunity to meet the custodians that clean their dorms and to learn more about labor activism. USLAC members that have Spanish speaking skills will facilitate communication between the students and the workers.
Whitney and Greenblatt are hopeful that these discussions will further the growing alliance between students and community members.
“Discussions between workers and the residents of the space they clean will hopefully help facilitate discussion about bad habits [that students can develop] such as tearing things off the walls, pushing down trashcans, and being abusive towards the space,” Whitney said. “The people that that affects are the workers. No one else.”
President Michael Roth responded to recent USLAC actions and noted that the administration hopes to maintain a positive relationship with custodial workers.
“We haven’t been sitting on the sidelines,” Roth said. “We take it seriously that people who work on our campus should be treated fairly, whether they work for us or not. It’s a little more complicated if they work for a different company, but we don’t want to use that as an excuse.”
Roth explained the administration’s stance toward the workers’ union.
“We don’t have the right to bypass the union, nor, I think, should we,” Roth said. “Management that bypass the union usually don’t do a service to the workers. I don’t want to assume the union is not representing the workers, but I do want to, as best we can, make sure that people are being treated fairly in a job that’s important.”
According to Whitney and Greenblatt, USLAC members may hold an organized sit-in at North College in the near future. The sit-in would involve students staying in North College until some sort of demand is met in the form of a concrete response from the administration. This idea has growing support from USLAC members and from allies on campus.
“We have the power as consumers of the university and members of the community to demand certain standards for what we’re paying for,” Whitney said. “I personally am really uncomfortable with the labor policies as they stand. That entails acting somehow for me.”
Roth emphasized that, contrary to discourse on campus, the University does concern itself with this dispute.
“We’re not saying it’s not our problem, because it is our problem,” Roth said. “We want it to be, but we also don’t want to negotiate through newspapers and protests.”
10/6/13: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that President Michael Roth would be in attendance at the Oct. 9 meeting.