On Thursday May 15 students, faculty and community members gathered on campus to rally for good jobs for the university’s janitorial staff.
The rally, which was organized by Pierce County Jobs with Justice, Pierce County Central Labor Council, and the Services Employee International Union, gathered a crowd of over 70 people who waved signs asking for fair wages, sick pay and fair treatment for the janitors who work at UWT.
“I love this place, I love this campus,” Carmen Valenzuela-Burger, a member of the Latino Student Union, told the crowd. “I’ve been well taken care of here, but I don’t think everyone is being well taken care of here.”
UWT contracts its janitorial services out to SMS Cleaning, a local business that is listed in the state database of janitorial companies eligible for government contracts. SMS employees are paid minimum wage or only slightly above, they receive no benefits, and several former employees claim they were mistreated by the owner of the company.
The university hired SMS in 2010 through the general state janitorial contract process, and the contract goes up for bid again in December.
“Now is the time to make some noise,” said Adam Nolan, a member of Students United for Social and Economic Justice, a registered student organization.
Though SMS contracts out to several buildings in Tacoma, including City Hall, SEIU decided to start their rallying efforts on campus because they believe that UWT sets a standard in the city.
Angie Rayfield, who is working on the “Good Jobs for Tacoma” campaign through SEIU, said that, though SEIU is hopeful that UWT will take action in hiring in-house janitors that could unionize, the goal is not ultimately unionization for the UWT janitorial staff. She said SEIU would be content to see UWT hire out to a contractor who treats its employees responsibly.
“They should be setting an example,” she said.
Several former SMS employees also attended the rally. Andrene Johnson, a current UWT student and public relations officer for BSU, worked for SMS for only 8 months. She says she was part of the high turnover rate she’s observed in the company, due not only to low pay and lack of benefits, but also treatment by their employer.
“There’s no incentive, no morale,” she said.
Christina Rogers worked as an SMS day porter at UWT for 13 months before she quit last month. She said she could no longer work under the conditions she experienced.
“I was the face of SMS on this campus for 13 months, and it broke me,” she said.
Rogers said she left the company with depression and anxiety issues due to the way she was treated during work. She said her boss was verbally abusive, and would yell at her for being sick and told her she could not call in sick.
Several UWT faculty members attended the rally as well.
“There are a lot of faculty that are very concerned about this,” said Michael Honey, a professor of labor, gender and ethnic studies. “We like to see ourselves at this campus as leading the way for Tacoma, and we aren’t in this area.”
Joshua Stanley, director of Facilities Services, said that, though his predecessor signed the contract with SMS and is no longer employed at the university, the decision to hire SMS was likely primarily financial.
“From a business point of view you pay less money, which is sometimes in your best interest,” he said.
With a contract, UWT is not responsible for the employee taxes and other costs that come along with hiring an in-house janitorial staff.
Stanley said that when it comes to the employee and employer relationships in businesses the university hires, it falls to the employee to complain to LNI or a related organization when a problem comes along. The university does not get involved in how an employer treats their employees unless the employer is breaking the law, for example in not paying their employees at all.
Mike Wark, director of external relations, said that the university will consider a variety of options in December when the contract goes up for bid again, including in-house hiring as well as contracting the work out to someone who is not in the state database.