Writer’s note: Andrea and Amy are pseudonyms used to protect the identity of the workers.
Millions of workers across the world and tens of thousands across California participated in protests on May 1 for May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day and, this year, Day without an Immigrant. But over 150 workers here at Stanford were threatened by their employer, Cushman & Wakefield (C&W), forcing them to choose between feeling secure in their jobs and attending the May Day marches. Stanford University subcontracts C&W to provide custodial services to all its academic buildings. A week prior to May Day, all C&W janitors at Stanford received the following letter from James B. Canavan, Vice President of Labor Relations at C&W, threatening them with “negative consequences for all parties concerned”:
C&W’s attempts at intimidation went beyond the letter. Andrea and Amy, two janitors who work at Stanford, explained that they were subjected to additional mockery by C&W’s administrators.
In the days leading up to May Day, when workers asked the administrators whether there would be any retaliation, the administrators contradicted their own letter and said they would only punish the union and not the workers. But, despite this assertion, the administrators emphasised the importance of workers performing their duty, and continued to demand a list of all workers who wouldn’t be coming into work on May Day. While the tone of these conversations may have been mild, the threat of being placed on a list signified the strong possibility of future retaliation, especially for immigrant workers. Such threats are upsetting but not surprising in an industry that relies on exploiting immigrant workers and a company that has previously been called out by students and workers at Tufts University.
When Amy did show up to her worksite on May Day, she was surprised to find that there was hardly any work for her. Andrea and Amy realized that Stanford University had already prepared for a much lower number of workers on May Day. The examples of Google and Facebook affirming workers’ rights to take the day off also demonstrate that institutions like Stanford could easily cope with workers leaving to attend May Day rallies. Thus, C&W’s desire to keep workers away from the protests seems to have little to do with the practical concern of being understaffed. Instead, Andrea and Amy believe that C&W’s administration was largely afraid of the political dangers of worker unity and solidarity. Andrea said, “[C&W’s aim is] to dominate the workers, to tell us that we are eating from their hand.” She added, “They are scared that we will have power, that we are strong.”
C&W offered pizzas and cake to the workers who did show up to work on May Day instead of attending the marches. Andrea expressed her anger at this and other forms of appeasement and manipulation, “What [C&W] did frustrated us… We thought that we had a day to be united with the workers… and they robbed us of that. We were feeling good [when we were organizing]. It’s logical that we feel bad now, because they took away our freedom, our freedom to take the day on May 1st. And the mockery that they subjected us to by showing up with food on Monday!”
In the end, despite all of the risks to her job, Andrea did participate in the May Day rally on-campus. She joined close to 150 students, workers, faculty and staff, gathering at White Plaza and marching together. About the rally, she said, “[The march] is something that makes you feel very emotional, makes you feel good. You feel like you’re doing something like a human being, united with everyone.”
C&W actively obstructed workers’ freedom this May Day. Stanford University did little to stop them, and has refused to respond to community demands to “protect immigrant workers from discrimination,” despite the fact that such policies would lessen fears stoked by C&W’s threatening letters and lists. Some workers dared to speak up anyway, and many will continue to do so in the future until there is justice for workers and immigrants. It is the responsibility of the entire Stanford community to support campus janitors and all campus service workers in their current and future organizing, including pushing for the Sanctuary Now demands that will provide an extra measure of security as they fight. And it is all of our responsibility to be ready to fight back against any retaliation, whether that comes in a day, in a month, after school is out of session or in a year.
Contact Student and Labor Alliance at stanfordsala ‘at’ gmail.com.