At approximately 11:20 a.m. on Jan. 27, the main doors of University of Washington’s (UW) Gerberding Hall opened. Filling the silence typical to the building were the voices of nearly 60 people. Their wet shoes squeaked on the floor as they followed the stairwell to President Michael Young’s office on the third floor.
The visitors — a melting pot of custodial workers, various union members and students — were there to demand administrators hire more full-time custodians to maintain the growing campus. Also on the protesters’ list were calls to increase custodians’ minimum wage to $15 an hour and to end allegedly persistent harassment of employees by management.
Less than 15 minutes after they entered the building, the walls of the stairwell vibrated.
“Fill the vacancies! Fill the vacancies!” shouted crowd members in perfect unison, their fingers wrapped around the wooden posts of picket signs. “Custodians work hard, harassment doesn’t help,” read one. “Fill the 45 vacancies,” read another.
Before custodians entered Gerberding Hall they held a rally on Red Square. Despite steady rainfall, members from several groups, including the Social Work Student Union, UAW 4121, SEIU Local 6 and WPSE Local 1488 stood in solidarity with UW custodians.
“It’s ridiculous that my tuition dollars are going towards a university where custodians are left in poverty with excessive workloads,” said graduate student Garrett Strain, a member of Academic Workers for a Democratic University.
Since 2008, the gross square footage custodians are required to clean at the UW has increased by 26.9 percent, according to the 2014 Report on WPSE-UW Relations, a study written by the Washington State Federation of Employees to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. There were 287 full-time custodians in 2008. Today, there are 238.
Custodial lead Ed Vazquez said one employee must clean 50,000 square feet by himself on a daily basis.
Wearing a red T-shirt with the words “top heavy management = overworked staff + higher tuition,” he spoke through a megaphone to the huddled crowd.
“Well, try to mop, dust and pick up the trash, too,” Vazquez said. “It’s impossible”
Vazquez said that in the three hours between the start of his shift at 5 a.m. and the start of classes at 8 a.m., another custodian must clean 17 classrooms in Denny Hall. With more buildings to cover, most custodians are now doing the work of two or three people, he said.
Custodian Salvador Castillo, a union activist who has worked at UW for 21 years, emphasized that despite employees’ best efforts, they are no longer able to provide top-notch service. Cleaning carpets, vacuuming and waxing floors are all but abandoned practices, and even blackboards are left dirty due to supply shortages.
Campus buildings will continue to deteriorate if hiring shortages persist, warned Paula Lukaszek, president of WPSE Local 1488, which represents 3,000 UW Seattle employees, including all main campus custodians.
“Right now, we are desperate for a solution,” custodian Pierre Humphrey told Rolf Johnson, the university president’s chief of staff. “People are getting injured and run off their jobs. I’m sorry to say it this way, but this is not an ethical organization.”
In an earlier interview, Gene Woodard, director of custodial services, said the department is filling all of the positions it can within the allotted budget and regularly interviewing potential applicants.
“We hear a lot about budget cuts,” said Sarah Bright, a representative for Council 28 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “And yet, we see administrative salaries soaring.”
Data from the UW Salary Stratification Report and Washington State Fiscal Information shows that from 2009 to 2014, managers and supervisors in the custodial department received salary increases ranging from 14.8 to 20 percent. In comparison, salary increases for custodians have not surpassed 3 percent.
Though the UW president was not present when custodians congregated outside his office, his chief of staff Johnson told demonstrators that he would discuss these issues with both the president and university provost.
“This is all new to me,” said Johnson.
But this was not the first rally for UW custodians. Last May, a group of 50 stood in Red Square to protest retaliatory practices and unfair denial of sick leave. In June 2009, they rallied against a permanent shift-switch that forced many to quit their part-time day jobs.
During the most recent confrontation in Gerberding Hall, union president Lukaszek asked Johnson to obtain a written response from the president. After the rally, she worried that her request would go unanswered.
“We’re planning on upping our game if no response comes,” said Lukaszek. “These custodians need some kind of relief.”