September 9, 2009
Workers and Students Stand Up Together; Remember Korean Worker
A Group of Students, Trades, Young Workers, and Custodians Fight Against Retaliation and Abuse, and Remember In Soo Chun
After an entire summer of working together, custodians and their families, skilled trades, and students gathered together in Red Square to speak out against speed-ups, excessive work, unsafe conditions, union busting, and management retaliation. Some held signs and spoke about workplace injuries and disrespectful managers, while others held photos of In Soo Chun, a former custodian who self-immolated in front Gerberding Hall, where the President's office is located. Many custodians see their current situation as a continuation of the oppressive environment that In Soo Chun faced prior to his death. Text on the signs echoed this by asking "Who killed In Soo Chun?" and "Gene Woodard, do you remember In Soo Chun."
President Mark Emmert claims to use a "market-driven model" to implement budget cuts, which many claim has put the health and safety of workers at risk. Since January, custodians have been given extra work and much larger areas to clean, trades have taken on more jobs than they feel they can perform safely, and TAs' class sizes have increased. For example, TAs in the social sciences are now teaching 25-40 more students per quarter than in the past; UW tower now only has 5 custodians to clean all 22 floors; and one painter is responsible for 63 buildings. The speed ups and overwhelming workloads have led to a rise in workplace injuries. In addition to concerns about their own safety, some custodians worry that since they have been forced switch to spot cleaning, there is a danger that an outbreak of swine flue could erupt at UW; just yesterday there was such an outbreak at Washington State University. Facing such dire situations, workers have been fighting to improve their conditions. Last May and June, large rallies with hundreds of people drew the attention of the entire city.
But since the rallies last spring, custodians, students, and trades are all feeling the effects of retaliation. Workers say they have been increasingly harassed by managers, who they feel are trying to intimidate them and keep them from fighting for their rights. When workers are ill or have an injury that doesn't allow them to do certain jobs, managers often do not abide by the doctors' notes, saying that custodians must continue doing unsafe work, or face consequences. Gizachew Kassa has said of the harassment that "managers treat us with no respect, like we're not people. If they want to say something, they do not say it privately, they say it in front of everyone. It is embarrassing and unnecessary." Jamie Miller, a painter at the university, is upset that the University is not their contract negotiating fairly. "They keep stalling the contract negotiations. Meanwhile they are contracting out projects to non-union people. This is clearly an attempt to bust the union," Miller said.
Approximately 40-50 people came to the rally, more than many expected, and it lasted half an hour. The brevity of the rally was due in large part to one manager of day-shift custodians scheduling a last minute mandatory meeting at 11:15, in the middle of the 11 AM rally. Wen Liu, a recent UW graduate who helped organize the rally, said, "The fact that this many custodians and trades came out in the face of really nasty and increased harassment is a big deal. This is only the first in a series of actions this fall, where the people of the university are going to confront these abusive and exploitative practices. We expect huge momentum when students return in the fall and see unsafe classrooms, overstuffed quiz sections, and fewer support staff like tutors and advisors; all of which they are paying 14% more tuition for."
The rally was unique because several different sectors of campus came together to support each other and express their collective outrage. Jacob Greenberg, a teaching assistant in History, identified the struggles as interconnected: "We are not just fighting for the other workers on campus. We are also workers, and this 'private model' is making us work inhumane hours and provide a much poorer quality experience for undergraduates." Young workers who attended the rally believe that if they don't fight alongside the custodians, trades, and TAs, then working conditions will only worsen until they will be forced to "work 60 hour weeks, with no benefits or protections against managerial abuse," said Ian Morgan, a school teacher. And when asked why the trades came out to the rally, Miller explained: "We were facing a lot of similar problems, and when we saw the custodians stand up and fight, we knew we had to fight along with them."