University of Buffalo students campaign for janitors' rights, 2005-2006

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
After April, the campaign took a new form to ensure that the university followed through on its promises. Students renewed efforts in November 2006.
1 December
2005
to
April
2006
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Buffalo, New York
Location Description: 
University of Buffalo campus
Goals: 
The campaign listed the following goals in a letter to the University of Buffalo's administration:

1. All campus workers will earn an entry-level wage of $10.75 per hour.

2. All campus workers will receive benefits based on prevailing percentage in CSEA Local 602's contract.

3. The contracts that ABM and OneSource hold with the university will be made accessible to the public, in their entirety.

 

Along with many student activists in United States universities in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the University of Buffalo Students Against Sweatshops (UBSAS) ran a campaign to pressure their university to join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC). After years of student protests and demonstrations, the University of Buffalo (UB) announced that they would join WRC and the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The group of student activists feared that their university’s decision to also join the corporate-sponsored FLA would compromise the efforts and aims of workers’ rights groups. However, the group returned in the fall semester following this spring decision to focus their energies on campaigning for the rights of workers on their own campus, arguing that UB’s exploitation of custodial workers brought the campus dangerously close to constituting a sweatshop.

During the fall semester, UBSAS led efforts to plan a campaign to help privately contracted custodial staff on campus receive a living wage. A “living wage” narrowly defined is compensation based on local costs of living such that the full-time worker should not live in poverty, but it also includes issues such as healthcare, benefits, safety, hours, and security. On 1 December 2005, UBSAS held an event called “Justice for Janitors” where they talked to students and community members about the injustice of the $7.03 per hour wage subcontracted custodial workers received. Since 1993, the university had been gradually replacing union custodial workers as they retired with workers contracted by private companies, namely OneSource and ABM. At the time of the campaign, seventy-five custodial workers were still represented by the on-campus union whereas 130-140 were contracted out to other companies. Workers of these companies made poverty wages with no benefits, no raises, no paid sick days, uncertain compensation for overtime and no shift differential for nighttime work. Students believed that UB had been doing this in efforts to weaken the union and so that the administration would not have to claim responsibility for the employees or worry about grievances and benefits.

With support from other student groups, UBSAS established a set of demands with both union and contracted janitors to ensure their safety and well-being in the workplace. The following demands appeared in a letter that the group presented to UB’s President John B. Simpson on 1 December 2005:

  1. All campus workers will earn an entry-level wage of $10.75 per hour.
  2. All campus workers will receive benefits based on prevailing percentage in CSEA Local 602's contract.
  3. The contracts that ABM and OneSource hold with the university will be made accessible to the public, in their entirety.

Colin O'Malley, a member of UBSAS who emerged as a leader in the campaign, said that the group would wait for a response from President Simpson before making another move. It is unclear whether the group received a response before the spring.

On 7 March 2006, students from UBSAS protested in the student union bringing in over a dozen bags of trash collected from one of the lecture halls. Led by UBSAS member Rachel Wilson, they used the trash to emphasize the injustice done to custodial workers who did not receive living wages for their work. Director of the Student Union, Dave Ballard, was not supportive of the protest claiming that the campaigners’ use of a megaphone was unauthorized and the trash bags were a “safety hazard”. University police responded by requesting that the protesters clean up and leave. No charges were filed and officer Amy Pedlow commented, "I think as long as they're done, we're done.” In addition to this protest, students held weekly worker appreciation breakfasts throughout the semester.

On 1 April 2006, UB administrators made an announcement to cease contracting out custodial work at the university. They said that they would begin a 3-year transition to have all custodial staff represented by the existing union, CSEA local 602. They promised to increase wages to $10.60/hour and provide state health benefits. Three days later, UBSAS led a rally with about seventy students and community members present. The protestors chanted, "Living wage now!" and students carried signs that read, "Equal Pay for Equal Work," "Can't Live on $7.00 an hour," and "Don't hire new ones, help the workers." Speakers praised the recent announcement but emphasized the need to ensure that the university would maintain its promises and move forward in a transparent way. O’Malley wrote in the campus newspaper that the rally was also held to voice demands that the university pay a living wage immediately to the janitors and automatically transition workers into union positions. Maura Pellettieri, a student speaker at the event, said that they would continue to fight to ensure that the current workers not lose their jobs.

Officials said that the decision was not related to the campaign or the rally, but rather was a result of administrative efforts over the course of a year and a half to make changes. Students, however, claimed victory for the campaign. Michael Dupre, associate vice president for University Facilities, made the following comment that perhaps reveals the administration’s concerns with the quality of the program over the fair treatment of workers: "There's a direct link between quality assurance problems and low wages of janitors. We're interested in having a top-quality program."

Following the rally, students on campus expressed disagreement about how best to support the custodial staff. Some claimed in opinion pieces for the student-run newspaper that students should clean up for themselves and not stage what one student referred to as attention grabbing protests without substance. O’Malley wrote for the student newspaper that he agreed that students should show respect and clean up after themselves, but he urged everyone to think deeper about how to show respect. He argued that joining the campaign with janitors to fight for their rights is a crucial next step to changing one’s personal habits. Pellettieri assured everyone that janitors determined their demands and flyered for the rally, but that student leadership is crucial in supporting workers because students, unlike workers, do not risk being unlawfully fired for organizing.

Though the campaign achieved many of its goals with UB's announcement in April 2006, the student activists considered the need to engage in a new effort to ensure that the administration follow through with their promises. They renewed their efforts to organize and confront the administration in November 2006 to pressure UB to immediately increase all custodial workers’ pay to that of the living wage and to automatically transition workers into the union, upon receiving news that dozens of workers would be fired and forced to reapply for union positions.

Research Notes
Influences: 

University of Buffalo students were influenced by the living wage campaigns at Harvard and Georgetown. (1) Their efforts were also influenced by and grew out of the numerous university student campaigns against sweatshops, including their own. (1)

Sources: 
Deciccio, Devan. “UB has opportunity for activism.” The Spectrum, 30 November 2005. Web. <http://www.ubspectrum.com/opinion/ub-has-opportunity-for-activism-1.1404369#.UQxy36VX1HJ>

Editorial. “Custodial workers rights neglected.” The Spectrum, 5 December 2005. Web. <http://www.ubspectrum.com/opinion/custodial-workers-rights-neglected-1.1404434#.UQxy4KVX1HK>

Halleck, Tom. “Sweeping in a living wage.” The Spectrum, 5 December 2005. Web. <http://www.ubspectrum.com/news/sweeping-in-a-living-wage-1.1404436#.UQxy56VX1HJ>

O’Malley, Collin. “Letter to the editor: Janitors deserve respect.” The Spectrum, 10 March 2006. Web. <http://www.ubspectrum.com/opinion/letter-to-the-editor-1.1405355#.UQxy56VX1HJ>

O’Malley, Collin, “Present a substantive argument, not generalized attacks.” The Spectrum, 10 April 2006. Web. <http://www.ubspectrum.com/opinion/present-a-substantive-argument-not-generalized-attacks-1.1405729#.UQyWH6VX1HK>

Page, Arthur. “UB works to improve maintenance: Plan would return to system where all custodial workers are UB employees.” UB Reporter, 6 April 2006. <http://www.buffalo.edu/ubreporter/archive/vol37/vol37n27/articles/Maintenance.html>

Pape, Robert. “UBSAS talks trash in the Student Union.” The Spectrum, 8 March 2006. Web. <http://www.ubspectrum.com/news/ubsas-talks-trash-in-the-student-union-1.1405318#.UQxy5aVX1HJ>

Pellettieri, Maura. “Janitors risk jobs to protest, students do not.” The Spectrum, 7 April 2006. Web. <http://www.ubspectrum.com/opinion/janitors-risk-jobs-to-protest-students-do-not-1.1405691>

Setlock, Christine. “Rally celebrates move to union janitors.” The Spectrum, 5 April 2006. Web. <http://www.ubspectrum.com/news/rally-celebrates-move-to-union-janitors-1.1405642#.UQ3BvKVX1HJ>

Student Worker Solidarity Resource Center <http://www.livingwageaction.org/campaigns_ub.htm>

“UB Student March on the President’s Office.” Coalition for Economic Justice. 16 November 2006. Web. <http://cejbuffalo.org/posts/press/2006/11/ub-students-march-on-the-presidents-office/>

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Nick Palazzolo, 03/02/2013