Custodians crank up the heat

April 14, 2014

Steve Leigh reports on the struggle of custodians at the University of Washington.

MORE THAN 200 University of Washington (UW) custodians and their supporters rallied April 9 in the middle of campus to demand an end to unsafe conditions, overwork and denial of leave time.

These problems have been going on since at least 2009. In the last few years, management has cut custodial positions nearly 20 percent (from 276 down to 223 today). In the same period, UW has expanded the number of buildings that need to be cleaned.

This speedup of work follows other attacks that came down on all workers across campus in the wake of the budget crunch caused by the Great Recession and the failure of the Democratic Party-controlled legislature to tax the rich to cover the shortfall. For "more efficiency" in 2010, the UW administration tried to force dozens of janitors to change shifts that would have disrupted their lives--from second jobs, to child care arrangements, to family and personal time.

The loss of custodial positions has resulted in severe overwork. Management has insisted on new, supposedly more "efficient" methods such as "team cleaning," with individual custodians specialized in one aspect of the operation. This has resulted, in turn, in repetitive stress. To get all the buildings cleaned with less staff, janitors have been forced to cover the buildings of those out on sick leave and vacation. Sometimes, legally mandated leave is even denied by management, resulting in workers losing accumulated leave time.

UW Custodial Workers' Rights Rally
UW Custodial Workers' Rights Rally

What makes these conditions even more galling to the custodians is the concentration of income at the top of the department. Custodians earn between $24,180 and $31,800 per year (from under $12 an hour to just over $15 an hour). The director of Custodial Services, however, makes $156,000 a year. This disparity has increased over the last few years, while $6.4 million has been "recaptured" from not filling vacant positions. None of this recaptured money has been used to lighten the load of the workers.

Other triggers of anger are lack of supplies. In many cases, properly laundered mops and special mops necessary for particular jobs have not been available.

Retaliation by management against those who speak out also has been an ongoing problem. In a recent case, crew leader Salvador Castillo was disciplined for telling the truth. He was asked by people who work in his building why the white boards had not been properly cleaned. He told them "lack of supplies." He was disciplined in writing for "spreading disinformation," and threatened with transfer.

What you can do

To express support for UW custodians, e-mail Paula Lukaszek, president of Local 1488, at [email protected].

Unsafe working conditions are also a problem. Custodians are sent by management into labs without proper training to recognize workplace hazards.

ALL OF these grievances led to a lively rally. Hundreds gathered, and custodians told their stories, heartily supported by students and other staff.

The rally was organized by Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1488 and built by student groups. UW Disorientation, a radical student group including Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER), Amnesty International and the International Socialist Organization, helped bring out dozens of students.

Buzz about the rally on campus was big enough that Human Resources had to take notice. Mindy Kornberg, vice president for Human Resources, addressed the rally in order to try to defuse the anger. Other HR officials came out as well.

The plan didn't work. Kornberg's pretense of being ignorant of the custodians' demands wasn't accepted by the crowd. The custodians let her know that they had raised their grievances through "proper channels," to no avail. The contentious exchange exemplified the state of relations between the custodians and management.

The custodians plan future rallies until these issues are resolved. As the union's leaflet says:

We demand an accounting of where management is spending public funds. We demand filling all vacant custodial positions. We demand management stop increasing the size of runs and piling on extra runs. We demand management stop restricting custodial use of vacation and sick leave. We demand proper and timely training in work place hazards. We demand a retraction of the write up of Salvador Castillo for explaining to his fellow UW employees the real reasons behind the inadequate cleaning of buildings.

Further Reading

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