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Op-Ed: Janitors’ Struggle Continues

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The viewpoints of janitors and students have been consistently missing from the public discussion of the attempted Stanford janitor firings in December 2010, and as a member of the Stanford Labor Action Coalition and a Stanford janitor, respectively, we are writing to present our side of the story.

Federal law did not require the criminal background checks or the particular identity checks that caused the janitors’ job crisis. UGL-UNICCO and Stanford required criminal background checks like the previous company, ABM, did. The vast majority of janitors passed the criminal background check. With respect to identity checks, federal law requires a validation of authorization to work in the United States via the I-9 form. UGL-UNICCO did not disclose the requirements for its “identity check,” and only after our campaign did the company finally ask for I-9 documents from all the workers. All the workers provided these documents required for legal authorization to work in the United States. Therefore, whatever problems that may have come up with the additional identity checks that UGL-UNICCO performed were not a valid reason to end these workers’ jobs.

Many factors lead to discrepancies in the identity checks. Databases are usually rife with clerical errors, especially with Latino names. In fact, Section 1324(b), paragraph 6 of the Immigration and Nationality Act explicitly states that requesting more documents, as UGL-UNICCO has done “shall be treated as an unfair immigration-related employment practice if made for the purpose or with the intent of discriminating against an individual.” There is reason to believe that UGL-UNICCO has violated this act.

Originally, 55 of the 134 janitors received letters saying UGL-UNICCO could not verify their identity and that UGL-UNICCO would not offer them work after Dec. 1. Hearing about these firings from the janitors prompted SLAC to send out a petition to gather support from the Stanford community for the janitors. After receiving an overwhelmingly supportive response from the Stanford community, Stanford and UGL-UNICCO involved students and workers in the discussion. They began rehiring some workers, though many janitors remained jobless. The workers organized several marches and one four-hour work stoppage. The workers’ actions and union negotiations led to UGL-UNICCO’s provisional offer to rehire the workers once they presented their I-9 form, pending a grievance claim.

In firing the janitors, UGL-UNICCO violated the requirement of the collective bargaining agreement they have with the janitors’ union, SEIU Local 1877, that requires new subcontractors rehire all workers with full pay and benefits. Most of the fired janitors, some of whom have worked at Stanford for over 15 years, had enough seniority to make up to $13.09 per hour with full benefits, including health insurance for their families. Newly hired janitors started at $9.15 per hour with no benefits, including healthcare. New hires would have received benefits for themselves after one year and benefits for their family after two years. Since Stanford’s payment to UGL-UNICCO is set at a monthly sum, UGL-UNICCO stood to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars from firing janitors with seniority and replacing them with a group of new hires.

Stanford chose UGL-UNICCO over other potential subcontractors despite it not being the lowest-cost choice, because Stanford believed UGL-UNICCO would provide quality service based on its performance at other schools. Complying with contractual requirements partly defines quality service. UGL-UNICCO has violated its union contract on top of having a history of worker mistreatment. According to a Harvard Crimson article (2002), UGL-UNICCO used anti-worker cost-cutting strategies, such as employing part-time janitors to avoid providing healthcare both on Harvard campus and in the Boston area.

The situation is far from over — 29 workers anxiously await the results of the grievance claim, which will be decided on May 4. If the grievance claim is not found in their favor, these janitors will lose their jobs, and the only other formal complaint process available is an unfair labor practice claim, which typically takes five-to-seven years to decide. We must remain vigilant of companies both on and off campus that would abuse good workers to make a quick buck. Companies should reward those who work hard at their jobs, and people should not be subject to the financial whims of corporations.

 

Eric Griffis ’12 and Karina Reyes, Janitor