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Janitors seek higher wages at Catholic University

NCR Staff

To the 50 or so May 5 marchers it was a question of comparable pay for The Catholic University of America’s janitors whose hourly rates, union sources contend, are lower than those of other local colleges, such as nearby Gallaudet University.

To Catholic University president Fr. David O’Connell, the matter is a union dispute, with the university intending no action until the National Labor Relations Board rules on the employees’ choice of representation.

O’Connell was in Chicago when about 50 demonstrators -- housekeepers, students and supporters -- marched to the university administration building, Nugent Hall, and left a copy of a petition requesting union recognition and bargaining.

It appears that the Service Employees International Union -- SEIU -- has added new muscle to its janitor bargaining at the university. Catholic University, in turn, retains the services of lawyer Allen Siegel, with whom SEIU spars in “Justice for Janitors” organizing across the city.

The background to the current dispute is extremely convoluted.

The housekeeping employees have been without a contract since last August. Last September the Catholic University housekeeping staff -- represented by a small union local, SEIU’s Firemen and Oilers Local 14 -- complained to the SEIU about the poor quality of their representation.

The SEIU removed the local president, who was accused of mismanagement, appointed a trustee over the local’s affairs, and proposed placing the 80 housekeeping employees in SEIU Local 82, a more aggressive bargaining “Justice for Janitors” local that already represents 6,000 Washington janitors.

That has not happened. And what did happen is not very clear.

The National Labor Relations Board has been petitioned by members of Local 14 to decertify the local. But, says SEIU’s Emilie Junge, Catholic University housekeeping employees in Local 14 say they did not sign such a petition but petitioned for permission to withhold union dues because they were dissatisfied with Local 14 leadership.

SEIU has asked the Labor Relations Board to investigate that complaint, but also filed to block the decertification petition on the grounds of “unfair labor practices” by the university.

To SEIU officials, the Catholic University janitors are still represented by Local 14 under its trustee. The May 5 march petition carried the signatures of a majority of housekeeping employees demanding the union be recognized and a contract negotiated.

Said Junge, if the school administrators have “any questions, they should allow employees to hold a meeting and let employees authenticate their signatures.” One problem, said Junge, is that the university has barred the SEIU from the campus on “private property” grounds and will not allow the union to meet with employees. She said, a Catholic University supervisor videotaped the protest, and some employees were “too terrified” to march.

University officials have said they will not negotiate until the National Labor Relations Board rules on the decertification of Local 14.

Among those marching in support of the janitors was Maryknoll Fr. Peter Ruggere of the Maryknoll Global Justice and Peace Office.

“Seen objectively,” he said, “the problem is not a question of which local should represent the workers. That is secondary to the fact that a Catholic university should pay exemplary wages. The scale of wages at [Catholic University] is lower than the D.C. average, and that’s disgraceful.”

SEIU comparisons show a Gallaudet entry-level rate for custodians of $9.01 an hour compared to Catholic University’s $7.74, with a top rate of $12.55 compared to Catholic University’s $8.81, with Gallaudet providing more vacation and sick leave than Catholic University, and assuming 100 percent of health care premiums, while Catholic University employees pay part of the cost.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000