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Students join janitor's struggle at Jesuit university

NCR Staff

Student activists at Fairfield University in Connecticut said they were putting the values they were taught at the Jesuit institution into action this spring when they supported the school’s janitors in a struggle to unionize. The 60 janitors are contracted through an outside custodial company.

Following student protests that culminated in an 11-hour sit-in and a threatened hunger strike, university officials announced that the school is establishing new criteria to govern its relationships with external contractors.

In addition to forming a six-person committee to draft the new guidelines, the university announced that it was terminating its contract with the custodial company, Service Management Group, effective by the fall semester.

“This is a Jesuit institution, and we’ve sat through class after class where they’ve told us about social justice,” student activist Kate Ferranti told reporters at the sit-in held April 16 in the administrative building. “That’s why we think this fight is important.”

Thirty-nine students staged the sit-in outside the office of the university president, Jesuit Fr. Aloysius P. Kelley, after presenting a letter asking him to make sure the janitors were unionized by May 1. The protest ended when school officials promised to consider terminating its contract with Service Management if the company was found to have committed unfair labor practices.

The sit-in, as well as a rally attended by about 250 people in February, was organized by Concerned University Community Members, a social justice campus group with about 10 members who recruited other students to join them in the sit-in. Ferranti, a group member, described those who joined as “wonderful people, members of every honors society, members of every club -- student leaders. The administration had to listen. It wasn’t 40 failing students sitting in the administration building yelling.”

Organizers for the Service Employees International Union said that most of the janitors working at the university are paid between $6.50 and $7.75 an hour. They said that many janitors are unable to afford health insurance premiums, which run up to $2,000 a year.

Since January, the janitors have mounted an effort to join the Service Employees International Union Local 531. More than 60 percent of the janitors signed cards in favor of joining the union. However, the Bridgeport, Conn., company has insisted on an election.

Autumn Weintraub, a union organizer, said that elections provide a chance for employers to intimidate workers and drag the unionizing process out for months. “The more time employers have to fight the union and scare workers, the less apt the workers are to support the union,” Weintraub told NCR.

The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

At the end of April, Concerned University Community Members circulated a flyer with a photocopy of a Service Management janitor’s earnings statement that showed she earned $6.50 an hour at Fairfield University and $6.00 an hour at another location. The reverse of the flyer cited Pope John Paul II’s 1981 Encyclical on Human Work and declared the group’s intention to organize a hunger strike “because the university administration refuses to honor the above encyclical.”

“That was what changed everything,” Ferranti told NCR. “They were very scared about the hunger strike.” She said by the following evening the administration contacted the group and informed them of the university’s decision to form the six-member committee to draft new guidelines.

“We couldn’t ask for anything better,” said Ferranti, who graduated in May. “It helps this situation and all outsourced workers in the future.”

According to university spokesperson Doug Whiting, the committee submitted its recommendations to Kelley and the administration at the beginning of June. Upon acceptance, the recommendations will be forwarded to the board of trustees for approval. Whiting expected an announcement of the new guidelines by the end of July.

Once the new code is adopted, the university will accept bids for a new custodial contract. Service Management will be able to submit a bid along with other competing companies. Numerous attempts to reach a spokesperson for Service Management were unsuccessful.

Weintraub said the students submitted to the university’s committee a list of 19 potential contractors who have agreements with the union. “These companies are accustomed to paying workers living wages, following grievance procedures, cleaning buildings in the most efficient way and making sure the workers are happy,” Weintraub said.

She said that the workers themselves wrote a petition and presented it to the university committee, demanding that they be hired by the company that is contracted under the new code and receive a living wage and affordable health insurance.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999