As a recently graduated alumnus of Wesleyan, I had the pleasure of visiting some friends of mine on Campus last weekend. I joined them in questioning President Roth at a Lacrosse game on Saturday about the severe workloads placed on Wesleyan’s custodial workers. Other students associated with USLAC (the University Student Labor Action Coalition) confronted him on Monday. Confronting President Roth directly was not our first choice of tactic, but continued administrative intransigence has made this kind of direct action necessary. During both confrontations, President Roth was asked whether he felt that custodial workers were lying about working conditions at Wesleyan.
Confronted with the reality of working conditions at the university, the administration has maintained that it has data that shows that working conditions are “comparable to peer institutions.” As USLAC has already shown, the administration’s interpretation of the data (which was produced years ago by a company it employs directly) is deeply flawed. For example, in comparing other universities to Wesleyan, it compares their target square footage per employee to Wesleyan’s actual square footage per employee. It also fails to take account of the fact that not all square footage is alike. Some of the institutions it compared Wesleyan to are not mainly residential, and the data therefore does not take into account the increased burden of cleaning dormitories and dining facilities compared to academic buildings. Regardless of the data, though, Wesleyan should not content itself with being “comparable to peer institutions.” It should aim to be a leader on working conditions, just as it aims to be a leader in its academics and athletics. If it does not wish to lead, perhaps it should consider “comparable with peer institutions” as its new motto.
At the rally held by campus workers and USLAC last Friday, workers employed by both SMG and Physical Plant spoke out about continually increasing workloads. In its discussions with workers USLAC learned that some members of the custodial staff cannot eat lunch because of the amount of work that they are required to do. USLAC has spoken with dozens of workers and has built relationships with campus workers over the course of years. The demand for five more workers is not one students in USLAC formulated themselves. It is a product of long discussions with the workers concerned themselves. Other campus workers, especially those who work in Physical Plant, have echoed custodial workers’ statements about increasing workloads for individual workers. The union that represents them has said that it “[stands] in solidarity today with Wesleyan University custodial staff, who are fighting workforce cuts and unsafe working conditions.” It has also requested a full investigation into the administration’s subcontracting policies.
In response to being confronted, President Roth left and became angry. It is understandable that having these questions posed by students would be unpleasant. That unpleasantness, though, pales in comparison to the unpleasantness of being unable to eat lunch because of increasing workloads, of being expected to clean an entire dormitory in a short period, of being stuck as a temporary worker for years because the university wants to avoid the costs associated with providing benefits. Nearly every custodial worker USLAC has spoken to has reported that working conditions are getting worse year after year. Two workers used to clean Bennett and Fauver, now that work is done by a single worker.* In response to questions raised by students, President Roth referenced the fact that they were using phones and said “this is a game for you.” He referred to custodial workers as “people you know nothing about,” “people you’ve never spoken to,” “people you don’t understand,” and USLAC members’ “fancy attitudes.” All of these claims are categorically wrong and show how far President Roth is from really understanding the situation. Members of USLAC have spent years building relationships directly with workers at Wesleyan. If President Roth is concerned that USLAC’s connections with campus workers are not close enough, perhaps he should consider asking SMG to remove clauses in its handbook that discourage custodial workers from forming relationships with students and faculty. Ultimately, though, these responses show that President Roth himself has failed to reach out seriously to campus workers, the same workers who clean up after him every single day. If he had listened to what was said at the rally on Friday, he would know that these claims come directly from workers themselves, not from students.
Perhaps in claiming that these actions are a game for USLAC members, President Roth is attempting to comfort himself. In addition to facing protests from students, the administration is now being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board for its treatment of campus custodial workers. Whatever the result of this investigation, though, speaking up for workers at Wesleyan is no game for USLAC. Its members have faced SJB charges for their protests, but the group is not and will not be intimidated. USLAC is ready to continue its protests this year and it has built the infrastructure to continue the campaign next year as well if necessary. The administration has chosen not to take the issue of working conditions seriously. Its inaccurate portrayals of data and its insistence that that old data is more important than workers describing their conditions have made protest necessary. This issue will not go away until the university agrees to take the issue of increasing workloads seriously and hire five more custodial workers.
Alec Shea is a member of the class of 2018.