Note: The author is a member of USLAC.
Since October 2018, the United Student/Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) has been urging the University to hire five more janitorial workers. Since the University announced on Sept. 3 that it had authorized Sun Management Group (SMG) to hire one additional worker, USLAC has continued with its demands of bringing the number of new hires to five.
One of USLAC’s central arguments is that the number of janitorial workers on campus decreased from 60 (under American Building Management [ABM] the subcontractor until 2012) to 50 (under Sun Services, which was bought by SMG in 2017). The Argus archives from 2012, when Sun Services took over from ABM, and 2013, when a series of protests by janitors took place, give historical context for the current protests. USLAC’s current reason for protest centers around issues faced by custodians under SMG that were reported on before Sun Services took over from ABM in 2012 and that continued after the change, especially since the total number of workers has decreased.
Leading up to the 2012 contract change
For some background, the University hired its own custodial staff until the 1990s, when it started to hire subcontractors instead. A student wrote in a Wesleying post that this system not only saves the University money, but that the University can defer complaints about working conditions to the subcontractor.
The Wesleying post says that, in 2012, many workers reported being overworked, primarily because ABM had become responsible for the maintenance of 10 new buildings on campus and did not increase the number of staff members accordingly. Furthermore, many custodians who had been hired by the University had retired, further increasing workloads, the post says.
In February 2012, an Argus article reported that the administration began accepting bids for janitorial subcontractors in anticipation of ABM’s contract coming up for potential renewal.
“In anticipation of the bidding process, student representatives from the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) have met repeatedly with custodial workers to discuss the current contract,” the article reads. “Based on these meetings, the students drafted a petition that was signed by 50 of the 56 ABM custodians, requesting that the administration select a subcontractor that will reanalyze the current workload, not terminate positions, and uphold the workers’ right to unionize.”
Despite dissatisfaction with ABM, many workers did not want to change contractors because they feared their conditions would only worsen, as reported in an Argus article.
“Day Shift Steward for SEIU Local 32 BJ Herminia Duran said that her workload has not increased, nor has the workload of many of the daytime custodians,” the 2012 article reported. “However, Duran fears that if ABM does not win the contract, her job will become more difficult.”
“With our experiences, we know that when a new company comes in, they want to save money,” Duran said in the piece. “They will reduce people and restructure everything. With that restructuring, many of us will have a lot more work.”
“Ruiz and other custodians who spoke with The Argus echoed the sentiment,” the article continued. “They hope that the increased workloads are reassessed, but by ABM instead of another company.”
According to the Wesleying article, workers signed a petition and wrote a letter to Associate Vice President of Facilities Joyce Topshe, asking Wesleyan to keep their contract with ABM despite their complaints.
“Their logic was that, despite the many problems with ABM, the workers doubted that any other contractor would treat them better; and that, at least with ABM, they knew how to interact and negotiate with the individuals within the company,” the Wesleying post reads.
2012: University chooses Sun Services
Despite the concerns voiced by workers, the University decided to change subcontractors to Sun Services from ABM, effective May 1, 2012, as reported by The Argus.
“A selection committee that included administrators, Physical Plant Facility Managers, and two students chose Sun from a pool of ten companies that submitted bids,” the article reads.
They also addressed the concerns that had been expressed by custodial workers about potential lay-offs resulting from the shift.
“Earlier this week, some custodians were under the impression that Sun planned to lay off as many as ten employees, but Sun management and union representatives agreed Wednesday that no positions would be cut,” the article reads.
This sentiment was echoed by the janitorial union representative.
“The major thing is that they will retain the 60 workers,” SEIU Local 32BJ Field Representative Jose Rodriguez said in the article.
However, that summer Sun Services apparently attempted to go back on this promise. In August 2012, a petition was written by members of USLAC and posted to Wesleying to garner signatures demonstrating student opposition to a proposed layoff of 10 workers.
“When they signed their contracts back in May, Sun management assured them that it would retain all 60 of the workers,” the petition read. “Now, it is planning to lay off 10 workers by September 1.”
These cuts did not end up occurring immediately that August. However, Former USLAC member Emma Llano ’19’s senior thesis, in which they interviewed several janitors about their experiences at Wesleyan, explained that the custodial staff was nevertheless reduced by attrition.
“Sun Services/SMG did not end up firing ten workers, but still managed to reduce the custodial staff by not replacing retired workers or workers fired with just cause and relocating workers to different campuses,” Llano wrote. “This happened over the course of two years.”
Llano also noted that the replacement of ABM by Sun Services marked a general turning point for workers.
“Many of the janitors I spoke to mark the change in contractors to be the moment when the quality of work began to drop, despite the fact that the problems began shortly before Sun Services was contracted,” they wrote.
Further problems under Sun Services
Since the switch to Sun Services, janitors and students continued to report problems with working conditions. A November 2012 Argus article outlined the latest problems.
“[Sun Services] has allegedly not compensated six or seven workers for overtime hours since Oct. 20,” the article reads.
Sun Services denied the allegations at the time, saying that overtime work by workers had not been communicated as such and that the employees would be paid for their overtime work in the following week. Several custodial workers noted in the article that similar problems had occurred over the summer.
“Some [workers] now have to work from 4 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday,” Alperstein wrote. “Those workers will be paid regular wages, not overtime.”
Herminia Aranda, one of the workers interviewed in the article, said that the managers at Sun Services reported being unaware of the issue.
“There were excuses that the supervisors were on vacation, and so they didn’t put in the hours, or that there was not enough money being allotted to Sun Services by the University,” Aranda said.
Aranda also said that workers were generally over worked and often had to clean three or four buildings in one shift. Other workers noted that they sometimes had to drive across campus in their own cars in order to clean geographically dispersed buildings in limited time and were not reimbursed for the gas. Workers also expressed concern over other issues, including a change in scheduling to 40 hours over a six-day week from 40 hours over a five-day week.
“A lot of people have to come from their houses on Saturday,” custodial worker Fernando Ruiz said, as quoted in the article. “And some of them are very far away, for only four hours of work. They will lose that day of rest, for only four hours of work.”
Workers also reported that Sun Services had posted openings for new positions without properly notifying workers, some of which were for the jobs of workers on sick leave, who hadn’t been notified of their dismissal.
Summer 2013 protests
In the summer of 2013, janitorial workers took organized action against their working conditions. At a protest on June 14 attended by around 40 workers, protesters read out a letter written by custodians. The letter alleged poor treatment from supervisors and the administration, and it included refusal to sign a new work plan that was supposed to be enacted in July. The new plan did not take into account the time needed to travel between buildings, according to the letter.
“It seems that regular human ability has been forgotten here,” the letter said.
“The letter at the June 14 protest clearly listed the custodians’ demands, which are as follows: custodians should be assigned to clean a maximum of eight houses per day, and five when the houses in question are large,” the Argus article about the protest reads. “They should be assigned to clean no more than three dormitories per day; this portion noted in particular that Nicolson 5 and Nicolson 5.5 should be distinguished from one another and not counted as a single dorm, given their size. Finally, supervisors should ensure that soap, trash bags, and paper are always available so that custodians can do their jobs to the best of their abilities.”
The protesters also read a letter from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that urged Sun Services to investigate multiple alleged hazardous conditions.
Although Sun Services had recently reorganized work areas in an attempt to minimize the distance workers would have to travel between assigned buildings, a 2013 article noted that fewer people were responsible for each area. After several protests over the summer and negotiations with supervisors, Sun Services responded with a change in scheduling policy, and custodians signed off.
“Sun Services agreed to let them sign up for certain responsibilities based on seniority, and told them that they would reassess the workload after 30 days,” the article says.
However, the article states that some custodians were dissatisfied with the outcome.
“While the custodians oppose the new plan, they feel as though they were made to sign it; otherwise, they would be assigned jobs regardless of seniority,” an anonymous custodial worker was quoted as saying in the article.
On Sept. 8, 2013, student Cesar Chavez ’15 wrote a Letter to the Editor to The Argus titled, “This is Why (Not),” which included a translated letter from custodians directed to President Michael Roth ’78, along with Chavez’s commentary.
“We understand that when the contract between Wesleyan University and Sun Services was made, an agreement was reached that if the new company broke any of the Union contract policies, the contract with the company would be broken immediately,” the translated letter read. “We the custodians that work at your facility ask that Sun Services be removed from campus on the premises that it has allowed not only for the breach of the contract but also for the harassment, mistreatment, and exploitation of us the custodians.”
The letter went on to detail several policy issues experienced by workers, including claims that workers were given warnings for not being at work within five minutes of clocking in, although they often worked too far away for this to be possible; workers experienced suffocation and exhaustion due to working in improperly ventilated conditions of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit without rest; workers experienced verbal harassment from supervisors; workloads were re-posted during Reunion and Commencement week with three times the amount of work per custodian, such as one worker being responsible for cleaning all of the Butterfields. The letter also said that the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities of Connecticut had come to Wesleyan to meet with Topshe, but problems had continued.
A Wesleying article published in late September 2013 gave an in-depth history of janitorial workers at Wesleyan, mentioned a Sept. 21 rally at a football game, and summarized where things stood, emphasizing that the practice of sub-contracting gave the University the ability to deflect responsibility, and that the union was unable to effectively advocate for more workers because of the difficulty of proving unreasonable working conditions.
“The current staff of 50 feel that their workload is unreasonable,” the article said. “Sun Services says that it is reasonable. The union can’t do anything until it has evidence of unreasonable working conditions. The University avoids all questions and discussions about the issue, batting them to Sun Services.”
Although an October 2014 article reported a worker-student Solidarity Meeting held by USLAC that month to discuss issues faced by janitorial workers, no Argus articles mention major organizing on behalf of janitorial workers until 2018, when custodial worker María Sarabia was fired. Since then, USLAC has led a sustained campaign for the University to hire five more workers and to address other complaints about working conditions.
Dani Smotrich-Barr can be reached at email@example.com.