Students and faculty at Lewis & Clark College ask justice for janitors
By DON McINTOSH
More than 100 students and faculty at Lewis and Clark College rallied Nov. 20 in a show of support for 25 janitors who are trying to organize a union.
The janitors are employed by Skyline Building Maintenance of Portland, which has the janitorial contract at the college. They are seeking representation by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49.
The janitorial services used to be performed by college employees represented by the Teamsters.
With revenues of $3.6 million a year and as many as 190 employees, Skyline is the sixth-largest janitorial company in Oregon, and the second-biggest non-union firm. Its largest contracts are with Lewis & Clark College and the City of Vancouver.
But employees don't see much of the wealth. According to Local 49, Skyline pays its janitors $6.50 an hour and offers to pay $60 a month toward medical insurance that employees must procure.
"That's how Skyline competes with other contractors - holding down costs," says Emile Jorgensen, building service organizer with Local 49.
Since late October, 16 of Skyline's 25 Lewis & Clark employees have signed a union petition. The company took countermeasures almost immediately, promising raises, and firing two pro-union employees, which was effective in frightening workers, most of whom are immigrant women.
A big part of the union's Justice for Janitors strategy is to develop support on campus. The union organized a Nov. 5 meeting of faculty, staff, and student supporters. The American Federation of Teachers and the Teamsters, which represents employees at the school, also took part. Right away, campus supporters got active.
In mid-November, students sent a delegation to Skyline to present copies of petitions they'd gathered. They were not warmly received; SEIU 49 organizing director Steven Ward reports that Skyline called the police when students arrived.
Another delegation of students met with the dean of the undergraduate college, and a third delegation met with the president of Lewis and Clark.
Meanwhile, 82 out of Lewis & Clark's approximately 300 faculty members signed an open letter to the college president that was published in the campus newspaper, calling on the college to use its influence to get Skyline to recognize the union. In a single week, campus activists gathered 800 signatures out of a student body of 1,700.
The Nov. 20 rally was timed to coincide with a meeting of the college's board of trustees, who were handed leaflets by union supporters.
At the rally, Lewis & Clark professor Elliot Young spoke of the incongruity of the college priding itself for a program in which students study abroad in Latin America to learn about solving political problems there, at the same time that workers from those countries are facing oppression right on campus.
"Students understand that the janitors who are cleaning up their classrooms are abused and poorly paid, and they feel a sense of responsibility," Ward said.
In the last year, the union has filed a dozen unfair labor practice charges against Skyline, two of which stem from the Lewis & Clark firings. The National Labor Relations Board looked at the charges, determined that the union's accusations had merit, and is pursuing an investigation.
Will the college and its associated law school urge its contractors to obey the law? For now, the administration is adopting a posture of neutrality.
"It is an issue between Skyline and its employees, and it's important to allow them to work it out on their own," said Lewis & Clark spokesperson Jean Kempe-Ware. "It is inappropriate for the college to interfere on either side."
At a Nov. 25 administrative assembly, Lewis & Clark President Michael Mooney declared that the college cares about all its employees, but that it would not take sides in a dispute between employees and a contractor.
In any case, the union's public campaign seems to have had some result: Skyline owner James Lee and his lawyer Nelson D. Atkin II agreed to meet Nov. 25 with the union.
The union offered to call off the public campaign against Skyline if the company would sign a neutrality agreement and agree to card-check recognition. In the neutrality agreement, the company would agree not to campaign against the union. Card-check recognition means that rather than file for an election, the union would submit signed union authorization cards to a mutually agreeable third party for verification, and if it turned out that a majority of the workers wanted a union, the company would voluntarily recognize the union and start bargaining for a contract.
Jorgensen said Skyline "is considering the proposal." Ward took it as a good sign that Lee was at least willing to meet.
Earlier this year, Lee and Skyline got burned in a labor dispute at Western Oregon State University (WOSU) using the same anti-union tactics as at Lewis & Clark.
When WOSU in Monmouth decided to contract out its janitorial services several years ago, Skyline got the contract. Union succession required that Skyline keep the university's existing union janitors, who were members of the Oregon Public Employees Union, an affiliate of the Service Employees, but the company didn't feel bound by labor law. It fired everyone.
The union filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB; Skyline was forced to recognize the union. But the company stalled repeatedly in contract negotiations, effectively refusing to bargain in good faith.
The union found support from students, professors, and others in the university community. Finally, tired of doing business with a company that refused to work with a union, Western Oregon decided to revert to doing the work in-house, with union labor. Back at Lewis & Clark, union supporters are planning a mass rally Thursday, Dec. 10, at noon at the campus on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to freedom of speech, press and religion, the declaration recognizes rights to food, shelter, employment, and the right of workers to organize. All supporters are encouraged to attend.
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.