In response to efforts by the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) to address issues surrounding the labor conditions of custodial staff, over 50 students, staff members, and administrators came together in a public forum for an open discussion regarding labor practices at the University. The forum was held in the Daniel Family Commons on the evening of Thursday, April 9.
“We thought this would be a good moment of reflection about the norms around labor on campus, [and] to check in how we are working as a community,” said USLAC member and discussion host Ari Ebstein ’16. “Ultimately, we’re looking towards solutions.”
Custodial staff at the University are sub-contracted through Sun Services LLC, a maintenance services management company, and are not direct employees of the University. Prior to Sun Services, the University was in a contract with ABM Industries. In 2012, a committee of students and administrators was responsible for screening and selecting Sun Services as the new contract company to manage custodial work at the University. There were no custodial workers on the selection committee.
USLAC member and student representative on the selection committee Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14 attributed the failure of the committee to select a more ethical contracting company in part to the committee’s lack of consideration for the opinions of the workers.
“When we were in this process of picking who would be the next cleaning company at Wesleyan, we were not pleased with ABM,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “During that process, the workers had been telling me to keep ABM. I barely pushed that point; better the devil we know than the devil we don’t…. There is no appropriate replacement for the voices of workers regarding their employment.”
Sun Services rehired many of the same custodians who previously worked for ABM, but workers reported many changes in management as cause for building discontent.
Prior to the forum, USLAC members collected anonymous testimonies from custodial staff around campus, which were read at the forum by students.
“People are afraid to speak because of the persecution we’ve seen our coworkers face, because later it gets back to you,” one anonymous testimonial said. “Before we had a different company, and it was never an issue like this now. Now they’re always looking over my shoulder, looking for a way to justify giving me a warning, and it got much worse after I spoke up one time.”
To operate within budget, the janitorial staff was recently reduced from 60 to 50 workers. Since this reorganization, workers have expressed feelings of being overloaded with increasing responsibilities and receiving little support and sympathy from Sun Services’ supervisors, which has added up to a culture of stress and disrespect.
Workers also reported issues of nepotism on the part of the managerial staff. One worker at the forum stated that relatives of supervisors who were denied jobs at Central Connecticut State University were hired at Wesleyan University. Some anonymous testimonies reported that relatives of supervisors are given preferential treatment and do not receive the same penalties for work infringements.
Custodial workers at the forum also aired grievances about the lack of respect from some members of the student body.
“Students should be more conscious about their behavior,” one anonymous testimony said. “There are some students that are very good…. Meanwhile, there are others that are quite odious, and very rude…. Polite students say ‘good morning’ and smile. And the rude ones, you don’t even want to greet them. They don’t answer, and just give you a mean look. And you just sort of shrug it off and keep working.”
Associate Vice President of Facilities Joyce Topshe recognized the workers’ frustrations about students’ destructive behaviors and asserted that students need to be conscious about the impact of their behavior on the workload of the custodial staff.
“We have to respect each other,” Topshe said. “I’m embarrassed that [students] stuff paper towels in the toilet, and then poop on it, and then expect a custodian to stick their hand in and take that out. It’s disgraceful….We actually have members of our community that think it’s O.K. to paint a wall or punch a hole in the wall or break a window or kick a door.”
According to Topshe, the University spent $150,000 last year fixing vandalism on campus.
USLAC member David Whitney ’16 recognized the destructive habits of students as a problem in need of addressing, but stressed the responsibility of the administration to support structural changes.
“I’m not trying to excuse students’ behaviors,” he said. “That’s something [USLAC is] trying to change. But the truth is, my ability to control what goes through somebody’s drunk, addled brain on a Saturday night is very, very low, and my ability to challenge our administration to address structural problems is higher.”
Topshe pledged to review some of the workers’ grievances about Sun Services’ violation of its contract. Due to the limited interaction the University can have with workers, however, no immediate solutions to end Sun Services’ alleged mistreatment of workers emerged. Attendees reached a general consensus that workers should be treated with greater respect and humanity.
“[Workers’ testimonies are] a testament to the need for a shift in culture of cleaning around Wesleyan: a shift in the culture of their management; a shift in culture of the student body that understand their messes to be somebody else’s problem; a shift in culture of the administration that expects so much but hopes to minimize their involvement as much as possible,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “We have the opportunity here to live up to Wesleyan’s positive reputation, and to show the world and ourselves that a different possibility could make us more human.”