Months removed from the R.J. Julia controversy last semester, Karla White, who was one of the initial Broad Street employees that brought the R.J. Julia hiring malpractices to attention, recently reflected on her experience during the period and how it has concluded. While Karla spoke to various news outlets on campus about R.J. Julia last year, she had to use aliases to hide her identity because she was still hoping to get hired by the new bookstore.
“One of the managers of the bookstore was personal friends with the new manager at R.J. Julia and they called up and said, ‘We are hearing that someone at the bookstore is saying bad things about R.J. Julia; find out who it is,’” White said. “And I was told to keep my mouth shut and to not make any noise and was threatened that no one would hire me if I was complaining. And the manager who was telling me this at the time, I didn’t find out until later was promised a job at the new R.J. Julia Bookstore but then wasn’t hired.”
The tumult surrounding R.J. Julia started in November of last year when the University announced that Broad Street Books would be closing as the school was switching its bookstore affiliation to R.J. Julia, an independent bookstore based in Madison, Conn.
In the wake of the transition, controversy erupted on campus regarding the effects that the closing of Broad Street would have on its workers and their employment. While R.J. Julia representatives and the University administration disputed claims of unfair hiring practices, some workers at Broad Street Books claimed that they faced racial discrimination. Workers claimed that they initially were promised jobs at the new bookstore, but then were told they could only expect an interview. After months, many never heard back from R.J. Julia and consequently couldn’t start looking for other jobs either.
At this point, the United Student/Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) got involved and organized a campus protest in April of last year speaking directly with the head of R.J. Julia and listing a set of demands with the potential threat of a boycott. The bookstore promised to comply with one of USLAC’s requests, which was to guarantee that R.J. Julia employees would receive the same wages that Broad Street Books had paid. However, other demands were never fully addressed and the year ended with Broad Street Books workers still unclear as to whether they would be offered employment at the new bookstore.
White, who is originally from Mexico City, now works at Pi Cafe and never heard back from R.J. Julia after her interview.
“The workers at the bookstore were understanding that there was another business coming that might want to hire us and we were okay with that,” White said. “But what happened is that they clearly never had the intention of hiring us.”
One worker who had been working at the bookstore for eight years, Karla explained, had a set of five interviews and each time they offered him less pay to do the same job.
“They asked him all these questions about if he was qualified to do the work that he’d already been doing,” White said.
Many Broad Street workers expressed confusion about the skepticism that they received from the R.J. Julia employers during the interview process about their capabilities, especially since R.J. Julia had never handled textbooks before.
During the interview process, White said she experienced racial prejudice and a sense of hostility. Both sentiments are hard for White to prove concretely.
“They asked me strange questions about diversity in Middletown, and R.J. Julia is from Madison, which is as white as it gets,” White said. “They kept asking us if we were ready to supply the R.J. Julia experience, whatever that meant. And all these things you cannot prove because it’s the way that they treat you and it’s hard to put on paper but every worker had this feeling. But it was a common experience for the workers of color and they made the interview process really difficult for us.”
However, the racial disparities between the employees who ultimately were or weren’t hired speak volumes. According to Karla, who has stayed in touch with her coworkers, of the roughly 20 Broad Street Book employees, none of the workers of color or women were hired.
“There was the typical case that two employees doing the same job and same qualifications one was a girl and one was a white guy and they hired the white guy,” White said. “When I brought this to the attention of R.J. Julia, they told her that there couldn’t be any racial discrimination because the guy who was hiring was gay. And he was a white guy. We are still meditating on that argument.”
After months without hearing back from her interview, White notified USLAC of the situation at the bookstore. Once USLAC became involved publicly, she saw a noticeable change in R.J. Julia’s hiring tactics.
“Once USLAC got involved, R.J. Julia got really spooked,” White said. “They reacted by being really frightened to us. They said they didn’t think they were going to hire us because we were causing problems. They tried to blame us by saying that they had the best intentions of hiring us but now they couldn’t. When the protest happened, R.J. Julia got their lawyers and said that they had had enough. They had already hired three men and because they accepted longer hours and less pay. Those were the only three who were hired, three white males. And the administration did nothing.”
White has worked various jobs at the University and has become accustomed to the difficulties of dealing with the University administration. After moving to Middletown three years ago with her husband, Dennis White, who is a junior in the Veterans Posse program, she worked in the cleaning service during the nights.
“They overwork the workers,” Karla White said. “They give you 12 or 13 dollars, but they make you clean four or five buildings by shift because they under-hire to save money. They have this hiring method where you will almost certainly never have rights because they only make you work for three months and then rest for three months.”
As White’s experience shows, some cleaning service workers are kept on as temporary workers so that the University does not have to give them benefits that come with full employment, an issue that USLAC has tried to fight against.
“Each worker has a number of square feet to cover, but that number does not account for the number of classrooms and desks or other furniture that needs to be cleaned, so the work is not evenly distributed,” member of USLAC Emma Llano ’19 said. “The University insists that they work during the nights and don’t want them to be around as the students go about their days because they can be seen as a distraction, which is an argument we find really problematic.”
USLAC over the past year has talked to the service workers about trying to get the University to hire another worker to help distribute the work.
“It’s difficult to navigate because you have to deal with the side of the Wesleyan administration that handles economic matters, then SMG, the corporation that Wesleyan contracts, and also their union,” Llano said. “We have contacted the Union and met with their headquarters but they tried to have us focus on helping individual workers rather than the workers collectively, which is what we and the service workers would prefer.”
White’s account of the hiring practices and working conditions that Wesleyan workers experience speaks to a variety of issues that undergird the daily functioning of the campus.
Correction: a earlier version of this article stated that “the majority of cleaning service workers are kept on as temporary workers so that the University does not have to give them benefits that come with full employment.” This was false. The article has been edited to reflect that most of the workers have permanent union jobs.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.