Campus labor activists affiliated with the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) met last week with Associate Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe in an effort to come to agreement over a reconstitution of the Code Compliance Board. This meeting was part of an ongoing dialogue between USLAC and the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) following the passage of the USLAC-sponsored WSA resolution regarding labor standards. The Code Compliance Board will function as a University committee responsible for evaluating labor standards.
In 2000, members of USLAC submitted a proposal to then-President Douglas Bennet with requests they felt were pertinent to a responsible Code of Conduct. Citing a commitment to the rights and dignity of all employees at the University, these students argued for total compensation, additional benefits, collective bargaining, unionization, and freedom of association. The proposal also covered conditions of the job, types of labor permitted, and protection of workers when the University changed contractors, as well as enforcement and monitoring. Though a board was formed in Sept. 2000 to oversee compliance with these conditions, it has not functioned in recent years.
David Whitney ’16, a member of USLAC, described the makeup of the new Code Compliance Board.
“The new Board will consist of two students involved with labor activism, a WSA member, two faculty members, and…three administra
tors including Joyce Topshe herself,” Whitney wrote in an email to The Argus.
Students involved with this new resolution hope that the new board will revise and update the previous document.
Whitney explained that at the time of the original document, the custodial staff was not subcontracted; instead, the University employed this staff directly. Currently, the custodial staff is subcontracted by Sun Services.
“Technically the custodians are not covered by [the Board],” Whitney wrote. “This is sort of a ridiculous legality that is in place to protect the University from being sued and such, while making it difficult to enforce an ethical standard for labor practices that the University has defined.”
Susannah Greenblatt ’16, another USLAC member, noted concerns that administrators have articulated.
“Administrators voiced concerns that if they were to meet with workers on such a board to discuss working conditions at Wesleyan, they could legally be considered ‘co-employers,’” Greenblatt wrote in an email to The Argus. “This status of ‘co-employer’ means that even without any direct exchange of money, if Wesleyan acts like an employer by hearing complaints, the University could potentially be sued by a worker in the case of an accident. The pin-balling of legal responsibility that comes with subcontracting is exactly counter to this project’s mission.”
Vice President for Finance and Administration John Meerts was one administrator involved in fighting for the reestablishment of the Code Compliance Board.
“I think that we as an institution have an obligation to see that all employees, whether employed directly by the university or by subcontractors, are being treated according to all legal requirements [and] safety requirements as, say, defined by [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration],” Meerts was quoted as saying in the Nov. 21 issue of The Argus. “…[T]he university can optionally implement certain policies and practices […] that go beyond those legal requirements, such as paying all workers a living wage as defined by the institution. There may be other things that could come out of the conversations with the code compliance board that may make sense for the university to implement.”
Students highlighted specific concerns regarding the rights of the custodial staff that have recently circulated.
“Last week several custodians approached USLAC members to tell us that they had been informed by their immediate managers they were no longer allowed to take ESL classes during the work week,” Whitney wrote. “This is specifically guaranteed in their contract with Sun [Services]. We told Joyce this, she got in touch with somebody at Sun, and that upper level Sun manager returned her email with a reassurance that the custodians at Wesleyan had absolutely not been informed ESL classes were no longer available to them.”
Ari Ebstein ’16, another member of the USLAC, explained further concerns with this specific circumstance.
“This is a new development no one is even talking about and seems to just have been casually pushed through by an email between Sun Services manager Scott Weintraub and…Topshe, with no debate, intervention, or consultation of contract or, in my opinion, more importantly, no consultation of precedent,” Ebstein said.
It is this kind of issue that student activists hope can be addressed by reimplementation of the Board.
Another issue the Board might take on is that of custodial responsibility for program houses. Recently, students have brought up the idea that program house residents should clean their own houses instead of relying on custodial workers. Residential Life is said to be opposed to the idea, concerned that students and parents will protest. The WSA plans to discuss the idea at a future meeting.
Students in USLAC are also hoping to alleviate the stress of the University pushing part-time custodians to work long hours. According to the activists, several part-time custodians are suffering a cycle of being laid off by Sun Services, rehired in a few months, and eventually laid off again, in order to ensure that they never receive full-time status. With full-time status, these staff members would receive full benefits and higher pay.
“The lines of communication are so convoluted it [is] almost impossible for administrators at Wes to know what’s really going on on the ground,” Whitney wrote.
While some students are hopeful about the Board’s potential to make change, other students expressed more skeptical opinions.
“I am not hopeful for this board, to be completely honest,” Ebstein said. “I see it as just another bureaucratic committee into whose machinations it will be very difficult to translate… especially because Wesleyan has adopted an incredibly legalistic approach to the entire thing by refusing to allow workers representation on the Board. I go along with this because it hurts too much to do nothing.”
Ebstein added that it took a while to get the Board itself up and running.
“All these things happen incredibly quickly,” he said. “Daily, larger workloads are being normalized, new, more insidious forms of discipline are solidifying, and workers continue to lack effective representation in the backrooms of neoliberal power. This Board is a form of co-optation of popular disgust that will likely change nothing. I have incredibly low expectations. Real change will have to be won through social struggle.”
USLAC hopes to continue to assist in protecting and extending the rights of employees. The group will be hosting public panels and open mics for workers at the University to inform the community of their problems throughout the coming semester.
“We will invite every worker, every manager from each of the subcontractors, every student, faculty member, and administrator, including whoever serves on the board, to come engage in a dialogue on how our community functions and how it doesn’t,” Greenblatt wrote. “We hope that the Board will translate the concerns and ideas and spirit of these meetings into direct actions.”