The Workers of UW

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The Workers
SEIU Local 925
WFSE Local 1488
UAW Local 4121
SEIU Local 1199
GCC/IBT Local 767M


Custodians at UW


by Anni Mackin
(June 2002)


Though often overlooked and under appreciated, the custodial staff of the University of Washington is essential for the hour-to-hour success, health, and overall comfort of the campus. The custodians perform a large variety of tasks from window washing to vacuuming to trash and recycling collection, and they face a certain amount of risk from exposures to viruses from handling toxic chemicals. The University of Washington employs 615 custodians[1] who work in over 150 buildings. All of these custodians are required to be members of and pay dues to the union of Washington Federation of State Employs (WFSE), Local 1488.  Over the phone, I interviewed three University of Washington custodians, Eric, Cindy, and Roger (not their real names),[2] who are members of the Local 1488 WFSE union. Eric, a long time custodian, was once very active in the union but in the last few years has become disillusioned with the union and currently only pays his dues. Cindy, like Eric, has also been a long time custodian. Due to her schedule, she no longer attends meetings, but she does pay her dues, signs union petitions, and tries to keep up to date on union issues. Roger, a custodian for only several years, presents himself as a very enthusiastic and active union member. He seems to be inspired by the leadership of the current president of the Local, John Frazier and wants to build the Local union into a strong and powerful force by making it more visible to members and University of Washington management.


The Job


The hierarchal structure of the custodial management seems to be as follows: at the top is the upper management of the University, starting with the president of the University; under them is some sort of middle management; below them are the supervisors; and finally the supervisors have worker leads who help to monitor the custodians. All three of the members I interviewed seem to hold a high opinion of the upper management, characterizing them as professional and respectful to the custodians. The only problem they found with upper management was their apparent unawareness of what middle management was doing. Middle management, at best, seems to be viewed as distrustful and unqualified. Roger went as far as to say they were “corrupted by power” and treated the custodians as a class below them. He does not like his supervisor and holds the same opinion of supervisors as he does of middle management.  Cindy likes her supervisor, who treats her nicely, but is aware of other supervisors who are not so good. Eric doesn’t like his current supervisors, but sympathizes with the supervisor’s difficult position of mediating between different workers and management.  All three members believe that supervisors usually are not qualified for their position, citing that few have ever actually worked as custodians and, thus, do not have any working knowledge of the kind of labor involved in custodial duties. They also do not believe that most supervisors have the communication skills to manage such a diverse group of workers.

          The diversity of the custodial staff is due mainly to the large number of immigrant workers. Eighty-five percent of the custodians are considered minorities and many of those are Asian[3].  Eric estimated that close to three-fourths of the custodians on campus are immigrants. All three members feel that language barriers between the workers themselves and between workers and management have caused misunderstandings, distrust, conflicts, and have affected the efficiency of their work and quality of the job they are able to do. Some of the supervisors are also immigrants, which seems to further complicate the issue. For instance, Cindy told of one Ethiopian supervisor who speaks to the other Ethiopian custodians in their native tongue, causing non-Ethiopian custodians to feel distrust toward her, because they do not know what she is saying. Roger explained that they have had to start using inferior cleaning chemicals in an attempt to decrease the chance of an immigrant misreading a bottle and misusing a potentially dangerous chemical. Roger also believes that management segregates immigrants, allowing for less communication between workers about such things as the union. The example he gave was that during a strike last year, a group of Korean custodians did not participate because they had been misinformed about the strike by their supervisor.  This supervisor, who spoke Korean, wasn't able to pass on any information about the impending strike because they, as a group, had been isolated and weren't able to get the information from other custodians outside their own immediate group. He also thinks that management abuses the immigrants’ limited knowledge of workers rights to intimidate them and keep them uninformed.

          The primary current concern of the custodians about their jobs is the possible implementation of a new cleaning strategy called, “Teamwork”. The strategy of “Teamwork” is to divide the custodians into teams of two, three, or four and then give them a specific list of tasks to perform throughout a building or even a group of buildings. This is quite different from the current system of assigning a custodian an area to clean alone. Middle management believes that “Teamwork” will be more efficient and help to reduce strain on an already tight budget. Cindy feels that with the new method, the whole team would be responsible for getting the assigned tasks completed and because of that the custodians who are the harder workers will end up picking up the slack for the lazier and less productive custodians. She also anticipates communication problems occurring between team members. Roger agrees with her, citing that in Mary Gates Hall, where they have been experimenting with “Teamwork” over the last few years, there has been a large increase in conflicts amongst workers, sometimes even escalating into violence. Eric, who works in Mary Gates Hall in the “Teamwork” system, does not mind the system himself, because he enjoys his tasks, but does admit to not liking it in the past when he was on bathroom cleaning duty. He also says he has seen an increase in conflicts amongst his coworkers since the implementation of “Teamwork”. All three members feel that middle management should have either consulted them or the union before implementing “Teamwork”.

          As far as the actual work of being custodians is concerned, all three workers expressed that they do enjoy their jobs and get a feeling of satisfaction from them. They appreciate the benefits that they receive from the University – such as insurance, the chance to attend the University of Washington for free, up to a month of vacation time a year, and eight hours or more of sick leave a month. They also recognize that compared to other custodial jobs that they are pretty lucky to work at the University of Washington.


The Union


          The base of WFSE is its membership. The members belong to a local and have a shop steward in their workplace. The steward handles grievances and helps members with other union matters. The custodial stewards are divided into areas, so that for every supervisor, there is a steward. The local has meetings once a month for its members and the local leadership to discuss issues and possibly vote on and implement solutions. The local leadership, with member support, handles most of the issues that come up. Issues that are too large for the local leadership are passed on to the upper leadership via an area representative. The upper leadership deals with the issues given to it by the area representative, as well as organizes and participates in state legislative lobbying. This model depends on active participation by members, effective communication between and within all levels of the union, and strong leadership. Both Eric and Roger believe that some of these essential elements have been missing and thus have weakened the union. Eric also believes that many members are apathetic and that this apathy allows for poor union leadership. He thinks the leadership concentrates more effort on legislative lobbying, rather than dealing with workplace or worker raised issues. Roger, on the other hand, is confident about the leadership, but also feels that because of the apathy of the members, the leadership finds it difficult to complete many of its objectives, especially those in the workplace. He believes that this apathy is, in part, due to the lack of visibility and communication by the union to its members. He also feels that another communication pitfall in the union is between the area representative and the upper leadership causing important issues, such as the implementation of “Teamwork”, to never even having been communicated or discussed between them. Whatever the case may be about the union leadership, both Eric and Roger recognize the need for an active membership to make the union strong.

        The union’s participation and visibility in the custodial workplace, past and currently, seems to be lacking. Neither Eric nor Cindy feels that the union has caused any real improvements in their jobs. As far as the “Teamwork” issue is concerned, Eric and Cindy both say that the Local union has taken a stand against it, but has told the members that it is out of their hands to stop it. When asked about filing grievances, Eric said he once filed one, but that nothing came of it. He feels now that if a problem or conflict arouse he would go to human resources before going to his steward, believing that he would get better results from human resources. Cindy has never had to file a grievance, but also feels she would go to human resources before going to her steward. Her hesitation about going to her steward is prompted by the fact that her steward is also her worker lead, thus she feels that the steward would be biased toward her supervisor and management. She does not like that her steward is a lead and is perturbed by the fact that her steward was not voted on – unlike past stewards. Roger agrees that the union should be more visible in the workplace, but he feels that since he started working, the union has become more accessible. He told me that when he first started his job that he did not even know his steward. Roger also expressed a strong, personal dedication to stopping “Teamwork”, saying that he would be willing to go to the upper union leadership and upper management himself to petition against it. Roger gave me the impression that he files many grievances in order to keep his supervisor and management in check. He admits that the grievances rarely ever come to a satisfactory end and that this is because the union does not keep grievances on file to be used as collaboration. Thus, the grievance becomes the employee’s word against management’s word, with management usually getting the benefit of the doubt. He said he would not go to human resources about a problem, because he feels that they are too connected with the management to be unbiased.

          The union seems to communicate to its custodial members in four main ways: postings in the workplace, petitions, newsletters, and meetings. The postings hang next to the timecard clock and inform members on upcoming meetings, events, and important issues that the union is dealing with. Only Roger mentioned the postings, suggesting that they are not that visible or informative to members. Cindy spoke of signing petitions that are sent around by the union, most particularly the ones leading up to last years strike.  It seems as if most of the petitions are for legislative purposes that, with the high percentage of minority and non-English speaking workers, might go unnoticed or ignored for lack of the ability to read or understand them. WFSE sends out a newsletter informing members on mostly legislative issues that the union is handling. Both Eric and Cindy skim through the newsletters looking for information that specifically applies to them, but they do not read the all the articles and do not seem to fully understand or have knowledge of what the union is doing in the state legislature. The meetings are held once a month at seven in the evening at Harborview Hospital. Cindy says she would go to the meetings if she could, but she is unable to, because she has to stay home with her children in the evening and get up early for work, which starts at five am. She said that at one time the union held women-only meetings on campus during her work hours and the supervisors would give the women an hour off to attend them, which she did until they ended. Roger encourages members to attend meetings, he explains to them that with more member support at meetings, it is easier to present issues and implement solutions. He said that for a while he tried holding meetings on the campus during the custodians’ lunch break, but that the members complained that it was taking away their lunch time.

          Communication with immigrants seems to pose a difficult challenge to the union. Roger tells me that the union leadership, which is also highly diverse, recognizes the extreme multiplicity of its members and has been concentrating on how to fully include all members in the union. One of the obstacles he feels in communicating with immigrants is that many of them come from countries that do not have a favorable view of unions and many of these immigrants do not fully understand the protection given by unions. Thus, some immigrants are wary of the union for fear of angering their supervisor or even losing their job. The language barrier makes it even harder for immigrants to understand the benefits of the union and participate in union activities.

          The local union, rather than giving its members insurance, monetary benefits, or recognition awards, tries to reward and engage them through events and small gifts. The members receive all their health insurance and pension benefits through the University of Washington, which does not seem to be a problem for the members I interviewed. Eric and Cindy do, however, feel that the union could do more to acknowledge the members’ importance to the union. Eric says that all the union has given to him, as a member, has been “a pin and a hat”. Cindy says that the union holds about one picnic in the summer and about two banquets during the year, with one of these being a Christmas party. She seems to be only mildly impressed by these events.

          One unusual event that was held last year was the one-day strike. Roger considered the strike to have been more like a picnic rather than a true strike. He feels that for a strike to be really successful that it must be spontaneous and bring operations to a stand still, but he does not feel that striking is a good negotiating tool to use in general because it hurts members. However, he admits that last year’s strike increased membership, solidarity among members, visibility for the union, and helped in the Legislature. Cindy participated in the strike last year as a way to make management aware of its limits and also to show her support for the issue of pay raises. She said that members did receive a slight pay raise following the strike and were supposed to get a second pay raise, but the legislation for it did not pass. Eric said he participated in the strike to support his coworkers, but did not feel strongly about the issues. He did not say whether the strike helped at all, but did say he lost a day’s pay and his perfect attendance.


The Future


        Eric, Cindy, and Roger, each differs in their opinions on what they would like for the future of WFSE Local 1488. Eric believes that the union is on its way out and thinks that the University of Washington should subcontract a custodial service that might have better managerial skills. Cindy wants the union to become more involved in the workplace, especially with such issues as “Teamwork”, and to become more accessible to members. She would also like to see union meetings at the workplace again and possibly more union sponsored events. Furthermore, she thinks that the union should give out awards to longtime members and for other contributions by members. Roger feels that in order for the union to become strong again in its ability to pass legislation, to effectively bargain on their behalf, and to gain greater support in the workplace that it must organize a larger, more active membership. He has ambitiously set out to build this membership by planning to hold more community events and safety meetings in the upcoming months to make the union more visible to all its members and less frightening to immigrant members. Right now, he says he goes around to individual members – especially immigrants – talking to them about the union and how their participation is important. He also has plans to try the lunch meetings again, this time having them be catered. In addition, he wants to move the postings board that is currently next to the timecard clock out into a public place on campus, so that all the members plus university students, faculty, and staff can find out about some of the WFSE issues. To improve the grievance processes, he wants the union to start keeping track of grievance and forming case studies on particular managers or problems, thus making future grievances stronger and more likely to produce results. Roger's final comment to me was, “The pack is back!” reflecting his optimism and excitement about increasing member participation and WFSE Local 1488’s strength.

© Anni Mackin 2002


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[1] University of Washington Workforce Profile - University Wide By Job Group and Title Headcount of Classified Staff, ReportsWPsAndRosters.mdb, ReportName: C-WP1, October 2001

[2] Eric, Roger, and Cindy are assumed names used to protect the identity of those interviewed at their request.

[3] University of Washington Workforce Profile - University Wide By Job Group and Title Headcount of Classified          Staff, ReportsWPsAndRosters.mdb, ReportName: C-WP1, October 2001

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These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.