Wesleyan student-labor coalition wins living wages and unionization for campus janitors, 1999-2000

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Timing
Time Period:  
October
1999
to
April
2000
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Middletown, Connecticut
Location Description: 
Wesleyan University
Goals: 
Unionization and collective bargaining rights, a living wage, a pension, paid vacations, and health insurance for Wesleyan's 29 contracted janitors.
 

From the mid-1990s into the early 2000s a wave of economic justice activism swept through college campuses in the United States, spurred in large part by the global justice movement’s spotlighting of corporate malfeasance in the United States and especially in the global South. Seeking to fight in solidarity with underpaid and unprotected laborers, a number of college campuses launched campaigns demanding their universities end the purchasing of apparel produced in sweatshops. Between 1999 and 2000, 18 campus campaigns used sit-ins and building occupations in pursuit of this goal.

However not all campuses chose to fight against sweatshop labor: a few campuses in this period, including Wesleyan University, chose to campaign for living wages, unionization, and expanded benefits for their campuses’ workers.

Since 1989, Initial, the contractor used by Wesleyan to employ janitors, had paid janitors between $6.50 and $8 per hour and offered no pension benefits or job security; health insurance through Initial cost workers a fifth of their salaries. In October 1999, 83% of the janitors signed Union Authorization cards, demanding representation under the Service Employee’s International Union (SEIU).

On 26 November 1999, Initial agreed to meet janitors, students, and SEIU to check the cards and recognize the union. Three days later, on 29 November, after Wesleyan’s Director of Human Resources David Landsberg recommended to Initial’s President Mary Ellen Weiner that janitors seek unionization through a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, Initial canceled the card check meeting.

Angered that Landsberg had interfered with the unionization effort, the United Student Labor-Action Coalition at Wesleyan (USLAC) gathered 1,420 student signatures supporting the janitors in the following week. On 3 December 1999, USLAC met with President Doug Bennet demanding the University explain why Landsberg had intervened.

Bennet denied the allegations but claimed Wesleyan would not interfere with unionization process and said he would investigate the issue. On 6 December 1999, Landsberg emailed USLAC to state he had only “expressed his professional opinion” to Initial. Over the next four days, Bennet received numerous emails from students and faculty defending the janitor’s right to unionize.

On 9 December 1999, USLAC again met with Bennet to reiterate that Landsberg’s statement to Initial violated the University’s policy of non-interference and implored Bennet to follow the lead of other universities, such as Fairfield, in paying their contracted employees living wages.

Bennet declined and cited the University’s existing financial obligations to financial aid and faculty. Later that evening, a statement from the Director of Public Information Bill Holder confirmed that Landsberg had recommended the National Labor Relations Board election to Initial, believing that the NLRB process would best protect workers from intimidation.

On 20 December USLAC and a janitor presented Bennet with a petition signed by more than half of Wesleyan’s workers asking the University to stop interfering with unionization efforts. Three days later, the Hartford Advocate published a story criticizing Wesleyan’s treatment of janitors.

On December 26th, 1999, Initial agreed to conduct a card check; the Union was recognized on December 30th.

In the first meeting of contract negotiations with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), held on 11 January 2000, Initial agreed to subsidize health benefits for janitors but refused the union’s demands for pensions, paid vacations, and living wages. Initial reiterated this position in the second negotiation meeting nine days later. SEIU offered to extend its timeframe for increasing the worker’s pay to a living wage from 12 months to 18 months but Initial was non-committal.

On 28 January 2000, USLAC met with Bennet again and demanded that he openly denounce Initial’s failure to pay living wages and provide benefits, but Bennet again declined.

USLAC maintained that a push from Bennet would lead Initial to agree to SEIU’s demands. The students began circulating a petition to faculty demanding Bennet support the workers. By 7 February 2000, 43 faculty members signed the petition. USLAC then released a statement asserting that failing to support the twenty-nine SEIU janitors, twenty-seven of whom were Latina/o, undermines Wesleyan’s commitment to racial equity.

Initial rejected SEIU’s demands for a living wage, despite the offer of an extended timeline, on 11 February 2000.

Soon after, USLAC’s faculty petition demanding Bennet take responsibility for the treatment of Wesleyan’s contracted employees reached 143 signatures.

On 18 February 2000, two days after the Middletown Press profiled the campaign, USLAC held a march attended by 225 people. Student groups including La Casa, Ajua Campos, Students Organized Against Racism, and Ujamaa read letters asking Bennet to support a living wage for workers. At the rally USLAC unveiled and delivered their eight recommendations for a responsible University Code of Conduct to the President’s office. These recommendations included the right to collective bargaining, living wages, paid vacations, and a pension.

Bennet restated his refusal to intervene in the negotiations on behalf of the workers.

USLAC attended trustee meetings in early March to express the urgency of supporting the janitor’s demands. On 4 March USLAC protested loudly outside a trustee meeting and were offered three minutes of time on the agenda if they allowed the meeting to continue quietly – USLAC agreed.

At the third negotiation meeting on 6 March Initial again refused SEIU’s demands.

At 12pm on 4 April 2000, 24 members of USLAC marched into Wesleyan’s Admissions Office and refused to leave until President Bennet agreed to pay for the wage increases and benefits that Initial declined to provide. Later that afternoon USLAC led a rally in support of the workers outside the Campus Center and then marched to the Admissions office to join the sit-in.

Thirty-three hours after the building occupation began, President Bennet contacted Initial and offered to pay for a wage increase as well as paid vacations. Initial agreed and USLAC, declaring victory, ended the sit-in.

In the following weeks Bennet drafted a Code of Conduct based on USLAC’s proposed recommendations, which included a minimum total compensation of $10.20 per hour, including benefits. Although USLAC did not win a pension in this campaign, they won most of their original demands and the student’s organization steadily expanded its range of allies and its ability to mobilize throughout the duration of the campaign.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Influenced by the wave of anti-sweatshop and living wage activism on college campuses, particularly the similar unionization campaign at Fairfield University.

Sources: 
Bialik, Carl. "Students Live in Offices to Support Living Wages." The Yale Herald[New Haven] 14 Apr. 2000: Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <http://www.yaleherald.com/archive/xxix/2000.04.14/news/briefs.html>.

Campbell, A. Larrison. "USLAC lobbies for union." The Wesleyan Argus [Middletown] 7 Dec. 1999: n. pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. < http://www.wesleyan.edu/argus/dec0799/n2.html>.

Campbell, A. Larrison. "USLAC Prevails after Sit-in at Admission Office." The Wesleyan Argus [Middletown] 7 Apr. 2000: Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <http://www.wesleyan.edu/argus/apr700/n1.html>.

Campbell, A. Larrison. "Compromise reached between USLAC and Bennet." The Wesleyan Argus [Middletown] 9 May. 2000: Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <http://www.wesleyan.edu/argus/may900/n1.html>.

Campbell, Larrison. "USLAC campaigns for Wesleyan janitors’ rights." The Wesleyan Argus [Middletown] 8 Feb. 2000: Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <http://www.wesleyan.edu/argus/feb800/n2.html>.

Ross, Robert J. S. "From Antisweatshop to Global Justice to Antiwar: How the New New Left Is the Same and Different From the Old New Left." Journal World-Systems Research Winter X.I (2004): 287-319. p. 292.

Silbergeld, Diana. "Campus rallies for janitors." The Wesleyan Argus [Middletown] 22 Feb. 2000: Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <http://www.wesleyan.edu/argus/feb2200/n2.html>.

Thanawala, Sudwin. "USLAC continues union push." The Wesleyan Argus [Middletown] 10 Dec. 1999: Web. 2 Feb. 2014. < http://www.wesleyan.edu/argus/dec1099/n2.html>.

USLAC. "Timeline of Campaign." Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <http://www.wesleyan.edu/uslac/timeline.htm>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Guido Girgenti, 02/02/2014