Controversy left behind in housekeeping move

By Rebecca Guterman

Administrators and unions reached an agreement this summer on the consolidation of housekeeping staff and buildings engineers into the Facilities Services department, concluding a protracted, and often fiery, series of negotiations that saw faculty, students, and workers erupt into open protest on more than one occasion.

The University moved approximately 70 people from its payroll to Facilities Services, a division which subcontracts out to custodial vendor ABM Industries Incorporated. Among the many changes were slight wage cuts and workweek extensions, adjustments to collective bargaining agreements, and the offering of severance packages to all employees who were either contracted out to ABM or chose to leave the University altogether.

“At the end, the administration realized we were right to say they could do something to help these people keep their jobs,” third-year Lizbeth Córdova said, herself a member of two activist groups that opposed the move. “[The workers] are still unionized, which is a big success on our part,” she said.

At South Campus Residence Hall, for example, eight of the original 16 housekeepers chose either to retire with a severance package or to take other positions in Facilities, according to Mazurie Wright. Along with seven other housekeepers, Wright chose to remain at South Campus, taking pay cuts of two dollars per hour but working eight hours per week instead of seven.

Less than one quarter of the original housekeeping staff elected to take an “enhanced severance package” rather than stay with either the University or ABM, according to University spokesperson Steve Kloehn. Megan Burris, the University’s communications manager for finance and administration, said the severance package surpassed union contract requirements, since it was available to those who ordinarily would not have had enough seniority to qualify.

All building engineers, who are still represented by union branch Local 73, are back to working forty-hour weeks, reversing a previous move to cut their hours down to 35, which had been precipitated by past budgetary concerns. The engineers transferred to Facilities Services on July 1.

The housekeepers are no longer represented by Teamsters Local 743, but have switched to branch Local 1, Wright said.

Burris said that all of those who stayed with the University or ABM continue to receive the same or greater compensation, including benefits, as they did before the transition, though they do not necessarily receive the same or greater amount in pay alone. All of the housekeepers who applied for positions are currently working in the University or at ABM in another capacity, except one who is not eligible for work.

Kloehn said that the transition was not sparked by particular concerns, budgetary or otherwise. “The University as a whole is constantly examining and re-examining to make sure the core mission is met, which is its academics, teaching, research, and learning,” he said. “Part of that is providing services in the way that’s most efficient and professional.”

The University announced the change early last spring, prompting students, workers, and faculty to unite against the administration’s plans through a consortium of activist RSOs called the Worker-Student Coalition. Concerned that outsourcing would entail wage cuts and difficulties in collective bargaining, critics of the plan argued that there was no guarantee ABM would deal fairly with the housekeeping staff, according to English graduate student Andrew Yale, who was involved through Graduate Students United.

“If it [were] simply a reshuffling, why not guarantee jobs, why threaten to not guarantee unions,” Yale said.

Wright still disagrees with the move, but was satisfied with the role that activism played in the negotiations, arguing that the vocal objections raised by students and faculty were what prompted ABM to include a clause that kept many housekeepers employed. In total, she said, ABM promised to hire 29 of the previously 56 housekeepers.

Student and faculty views also played a part in the administration’s decision, according to multiple parties involved. “In many cases, [students] know personally the people affected and…the sense of community in residential houses is always an important value,” Kloehn said.

As a housekeeper, Wright said that she feels the sense of community in the residence halls. “That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to stay,” she said. “Because of the students.”