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Two janitors to combat working conditions

 Real Change (USA) 24 May 2019

(Originally published: 10/2009) Cydney Gilles tells how cut backs at the University of Washington have led to allegations of abuse and mistreatment of the universities custodian workforce. Working conditions have deteriorated and university security staff have arrested activists for trespassing. (849 words) - By Cydney Gillis

Real Change

Courtesy of Real Change News

The struggle of custodians at the University of the Washington (UW) took a new turn on Labor Day Weekend when UW police arrested two labor organizers for criminal trespass after a meeting with workers on campus.


Jane Mee Wong and Eakta Khangura had entered the UW's Health Sciences Center on Sept. 4 for a meeting during the custodians' regular evening break time. They had finished and were headed for the door of the dining area, they say, when a security guard stopped them and asked for identification.


The two told the guard they were leaving and walked out of the building. The guard followed and summoned a UW police car, which stopped them at NE Pacific St. and 15th Ave. NE. A female officer there again asked for identification. Wong replied they had done nothing wrong; why did they need to show it?


"Her immediate response was 'How do we know you guys aren't terrorists?'" Wong says. The two young women, who belong to a UW student group called Democracy Insurgent and volunteer their time as labor organizers, say they often meet with the custodians in the same spot and that the guard and the officers knew exactly who they were.


That, Wong says, is why they were arrested and booked into King County Jail, where they spent the night for criminal trespass - a needless charge, the two say, aimed at intimidating them and the largely immigrant union custodians who continue to fight the UW over the results of cutbacks instituted July 1 that cut 47 positions - 30 left unfilled and 17 through layoffs - and moved nearly half of the 85 night janitors to days.


The remaining 270 custodians are expected to pick up the slack with no cost-of-living raise, said members of the Washington Federation of State Employees at a Sept. 9 rally held on campus after the arrests. In December, the governor set aside a contract and raise that WFSE had already bargained for this year, they say, while UW President Mark Emmert and other administrators got more money.


The university is also stepping up use of a "team-cleaning" approach, say custodians, that has nothing to do with teams or cleaning. By making custodians on a team do one repetitive task, such as emptying garbage, it amounts to speed-up and pits workers against each other.


"I've seen team cleaning in action," says Paula Lukasek, a UW plumber and one of about 40 union members who showed up at the Sept. 9 rally on Red Square. "They run people through as quick as they can, and that's not cleaning. It's speeding things up."


"It's awful," says Cindy Gorn, a UW teaching assistant who is working to build a coalition of union members to call attention to the janitors and the contract-less limbo that WFSE is in at the UW. "Custodians are being told not to empty trash cans [and] not to clean faculty or staff offices."


Since the cutbacks, says Salvador Castillo, a 15-year UW custodian, buildings with six floors sometimes have only two or three janitors assigned to clean them. "There is a lot of abuse in the workplace," he says. "We've got a lot of overload of work."


Castillo was recently switched from the swing shift to days and says vacuuming, in particular, is next to impossible in a science lab when people are working. With chemicals present, it's also dangerous, he says, but, with team cleaning, the UW moves custodians around from building to building at will, with no training.


Gene Woodard, facilities director for custodial services, says team cleaning has already been in practice for 10 years at the UW and is more efficient and equitable than the old model of one person doing all the cleaning tasks in a given area. "The assignments rotate," Woodard says, so "everyone does everything."


There's no work speed-up, he says, though "what [the custodians] can do in eight hours might be redefined now from what they've been accustomed to." What the workers are accustomed to, say labor activists Wong and Khangura, are being supervised by managers. With self-managed team cleaning, the two say, the workers end up arguing over assignments or why one worker can't keep up with another - a tactic, they say, that the UW is deliberately using against the workers. "Team cleaning makes people fight," Wong says custodians have told her.


On the night they were arrested, she and Khangura were interviewing custodians for a publication they plan to create and distribute among the workers. Jerome Solomon, public information officer for the UW police, says that lots of people come to the UW campus for meetings in the evening, but if a building is locked, it's closed for the night.


Anyone entering a closed UW building must have a permission slip from the building's administrator to enter, he says. Wong and Khangura were arrested for criminal trespass because they didn't have a pass and weren't cooperative with officers, he says.


"We welcome anyone during business hours to campus and obviously we support freedom of speech," Solomon says, "but we are responsible for facilities after hours."

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