By Julia Ingram
In November of last year, Stanford dining hall workers protested understaffing problems and “unacceptable workloads” in a petition to Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE) management. A local union of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that includes Stanford employees, SEIU Local 2007, has been campaigning along with its allies for improved working conditions in dining halls and for reduced subcontracting of outside workers, as well as greater support for workers’ professional development programs from University employers.
In light of these efforts, The Daily examined the history of the challenges Stanford’s service workers have faced over the years.
Before they joined the SEIU, Stanford workers established their own union for technical and maintenance workers, the United Stanford Workers (USW), in 1974. Ten years later, they became affiliated with a national labor organization, but the University refused to recognize their chapter as a union, arguing that the union referendum to disaffiliate with USW was invalid.
Eventually, the University was forced to recognize the USE when the case was brought before the National Labor Relations Board. Workers decided to join the SEIU as a chapter under local designation 715, the general chapter for Santa Clara county. However, they faced challenges getting recognition again in 2007, when they internally agreed to form their own local designation under the SEIU. Becoming a local designation would give them the ability to to set their own priorities and control finances.
From 2007 to 2009, Stanford Hospital refused to recognize the union.
“Since March of 2007, we have repeatedly attempted to contact Local 715 to prove if they are still in existence,” Sarah Staley, communications director of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at the time, told The Daily in August 2008. “Due to their lack of responsiveness, and due largely to the fact that they have failed to represent our employees – which they had been elected to do – we feel it is necessary to withdraw our recognition of them.”
The SEIU has different views on the reasons behind its troubles in gaining recognition.
“It’s a general tactic employers use in order to try to break up a union or slow momentum or use up the resources in the hopes that they dissipate or don’t exist anymore,” said Francisco Preciado, executive director of SEIU Local 2007. “Workers are in this limbo, and it’s easier to take advantage of workers and make the union fight for the recognition as a union as opposed to fighting for broader workers’ issues or injustices in the workplace.”
In 2009, the union eventually won its case and was recognized as a part of the SEIU by both the Hospital and the University. This recognition, however, marked only the beginning of the union workers’ push for improved job conditions.
A history of protest
Throughout the 2000s, Stanford students protested treatment of union workers through hunger strikes. In 2003, six students fasted for a week to compel the University to establish a minimum living wage for workers. The protest was ultimately successful, resulting in the formation of a Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) to address the issues raised.
“The students and the workers were working together to get Stanford to recognize that it took a fast to establish a presidential committee,” Preciado said.
However, the issue of compensation resurfaced in 2007, when four students demanded a higher living wage by fasting for eight days. This also prompted action from the University: The administration raised the minimum wage to $11.15 per hour for workers with health benefits and $12.59 per hour for workers without them.
Student protest sometimes even led to arrest, as was the case for 11 students participating in a five-hour sit-in in former University president John Hennessy’s office on May 22, 2007. The students demanded that Stanford adopt policies to ensure clothing printed with Stanford’s logo was manufactured in factories with fair working conditions. Though the students were ultimately released, the protest proved a setback for students rather than a step towards achieving their goals.
In late 2010 and 2011, the primary issue of concern was the laying off of union janitors. Protesters gathered in White Plaza on May 11, 2011 to rally against the expected loss of 29 janitors due a rehiring process instituted by the services subcontractor that oversees employment of janitors at Stanford.
Slowly working towards change
With the recent change in University president, provost and other administrators, the SEIU sees room to push more requests forward.
“Before, we generally had to be constantly in their face to be received with any issues,” said SEIU Local 2007 President Jose Escanuela, referring to former president Hennessy’s tenure. “This time around, with President Tessier-Lavigne, we were one of the very first groups he met with, and I think that showed good faith … to start changing tone.”
“We see more dialogue,” he added later. “They’ve been more receptive to us.”
However, Escanuela acknowledged that SEIU Local 2007 mostly works with Employee Labor Relations and Human Resources as well as individual departments such as R&DE, rather than the president and provost directly. Depending on its audience, Escanuela said, some of the union’s requests are considered more promptly than others.
“Some departments have acted and done things to show that they are willing to address it,” Escanuela said. “Some have had unnecessary delays and have not addressed them in a timely basis, and they’ve caused us to work with the community and the students and the workers to bring attention to issues. It gets them moving.”
To resolve conflict with administrators, the union works through the University Labor Management Committee, which meets every other month. The union and the University meet in advance to determine what will be discussed at each meeting.
Currently, the union is working against the University’s current practice of subcontracting workers who do not regularly work at Stanford, which affects job security for members of the union.
“[Subcontracting workers means] less work for our members; the less work that our members are given means … it’s easier for the University to say, ‘We don’t have a need anymore. We have to lay off all these workers,’” Preciado said.
However, the University disputes claims that it does not prioritize job security for union workers.
“Stanford shares the goal of job security with our valued employees,” University spokesperson EJ Miranda wrote in an email to The Daily. “Our agreement with SEIU contains numerous provisions that address job security and we comply fully with the terms of the agreement.”
“What [employers] hope to achieve is to cut down costs and be able to have more work output,” Preciado said. “That’s just any employer.”
However, the union hopes that Stanford, as a university, won’t behave like an ordinary employer.
“As a higher education institution that is based on the ideas of critical thinking and pushing toward creating a better world, they should be an example of how they, as an employer, would want to see their workers treated with respect,” Preciado said.
“Stanford University is proud of its working relationship with SEIU Local 2007 Higher Education Workers (SEIU) and respects the hard work and dedication of its members,” Miranda said.
Meanwhile, the union’s plan to establish a centralized professional development program for workers, which it says would increase efficiency and effectiveness in training service workers, is gaining traction as it garners support with both undergraduate and graduate student governments. Divisions such as R&DE already host professional development opportunities for service staff, but the union wants to coordinate offerings across the University.
“The idea is that we ask the University to create a central entity that would collect from each department a training and development plan for its workers, specifically the service workers that we represent,” Preciado explained.
Currently, the union’s collective bargaining agreement states that the University will pay for or subsidize training programs, and is committed to that program.
“The University will continue to work with SEIU to assess workers’ specific training and development needs,” Miranda wrote.
However, the union feels that because training varies across departments, training efforts yield mixed results.
“Each department has its own program and does different things,” Preciado said. “Part of the decentralization of that means that if the department values it they will do it; if a department doesn’t value it then there won’t be any change.”
Contact Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.