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Illinois: Last Summer, Living Wage Campaign Fought for Janitors’ Overtime Pay
North By Northwestern
Katie Gronendyke and Ezra Olson

November 21, 2010
View the Original Article

One year into its existence, and the Living Wage Campaign is still drawing attention.

The Daily Northwestern published an editorial Nov. 9 stating their opposition to the campaign, eliciting a storm of response, including many angry comments and several letters to the editor. On campus last week to give a speech, LGBT and labor activist Cleve Jones walked into The Daily’s newsroom and yelled at the editorial board while campaign members waited outside.

However, few students are aware of the campaign’s eventful and contentious summer. The truth of what happened this summer is difficult to unearth — as the Living Wage Campaign says one thing, and the administration says another.

Members of the campaign say early this summer they began hearing complaints that some employees working for LBR Facility Solutions, a janitorial service company contracted by Northwestern, were receiving paychecks that were missing hours, or did not compensate them for overtime.

Both sides confirm that one year ago, 32 workers were fired when they were discovered to be working in the United States illegally. Replacements were never hired. The Living Wage Campaign says remaining employees were overworked. Due to the extra workload, employees were entitled to overtime pay. Instead, they were still paid the same wages as before.

Campaign co-chair and Weinberg junior Kellyn Lewis says that Northwestern was paying LBR the same amount of money as before, and LBR was keeping the wages that would have been used to pay the 32 fired workers. However, Steve Kindrick, a Northwestern human resources manager, denies this claim.

Lewis also says that three out of the employees’ four union stewards, who deal with the management on behalf of their fellow workers, were fired and not replaced. This left the workers without adequate representation to company management. Kindrick was unable to deny or verify this assertion.

* * *

The Living Wage Campaign became involved after speaking to Northwestern janitors. Lewis and campaign associates Medill senior Tara Garcia Mathewson and Weinberg senior Katarzyna Daniliszyn began to directly address what Lewis called “injustice in the workplace.” They spent three weeks conducting employee interviews and familiarizing themselves with the subject. In addition to missing hours and overtime pay, employees also said they had to provide their own supplies without reimbursement.

On July 11, Lewis and other members of the campaign sent a letter to Vice President of Business and Finance Eugene Sunshine and President Morton Schapiro raising the issue. Lewis says the campaign’s “concerns were placed on the back burner.” However, Sunshine says he encouraged the students to get in touch with the employees’ union, SEIU, and says that the administration was already aware of the problem. “We knew there were some bumps” in payment, Sunshine says.

LBR had won its contract with Northwestern in the previous year, and took over many employees from the previous company in that position. Sunshine said he feels the errors and complaints were most likely a byproduct of that transition. “This is a relatively normal kind of problem” for the circumstances, Sunshine said, though it is “a serious issue, and we’re not trivializing it.”

Though aware of the situation, Sunshine said his office was limited in its ability to act due to contractual restrictions. The university, as an employer of LBR, is “legally precluded” from communicating with LBR’s own employees and their union.

Throughout July, the employees’ union, SEIU, negotiated with LBR. Meanwhile the campaign approached Northwestern’s Human Resources department with a delegation of 15 workers. Lewis says they requested that Northwestern “take a stand” on the situation. The campaign also worked with the union to file more than 30 grievances and helped about 22 employees fill out Wage Complaint Forms through the Illinois Department of Labor. Through these forms, the employees claimed missing wages due to overtime, missing hours, and workload.

In the following weeks, the campaign and some LBR workers spread leaflets around campus alleging “wage theft.” Lewis elaborated, “[The administration calls] that payroll issues, we call it wage theft, I mean that’s just semantics I guess.”

* * *

The campaign approached Schapiro and Sunshine with a second letter, requesting a meeting. Though Schapiro declined to meet, Sunshine sat down with the campaign members and employees in a conference room in the Rebecca Crown Center Sep. 3. By then, however, SEIU and LBR had resolved the issues.

Dariusz Kozinski, downtown coordinator at SEIU, said that all the grievances “have been resolved in the workers’ favor,” and also stated that SEIU has been having problems with LBR at other locations besides Northwestern. Since the beginning of the year, there have been 107 grievances filed against LBR by employees at Northwestern. Lewis said this number “is not normal,” and Edward Bowen, a grievance center director at SEIU, called it “a bit high.”

After this summer, however, Lewis said that amount of grievances and wage complaint forms filed has declined. Sunshine also says he has not been provided any information of further complaints. Yet, the issue still seems to affect the atmosphere of LBR employees.

When approached, LBR employee Harry Knight said he was satisfied with his employer and his pay. He was aware of some unrest among employees, though, and reported hearing rumors of employees being fired for protesting. Multiple LBR employees repeated these rumors when approached, but were reluctant to discuss the issue. Though no layoffs appear to have occurred, Lewis reported that one LBR worker was threatened with termination and then suspension before the campaign and SEIU stepped in to prevent it.

Among the Living Wage Campaign’s primary goals is to disperse the atmosphere of vulnerability it says is felt by many campus workers, such as the LBR employees. “There is a barrier of fear,” co-chair and Weinberg senior Adam Yalowitz said at the campaign’s first open staff meeting of the year. “We want to break that culture of invisibility.”

At the same meeting, Lewis related the events of the summer to a crowded room of volunteers. Among those present was Tom Breitsprecher, chief shop steward for the UNITE HERE union, which represents Sodexo employees on campus.

According to Breitsprecher, such cases present challenges because it is hard to tell “how well the workers themselves understand their rights, and whether they know if they can stand up for themselves,” adding, often “they don’t speak English very well. Those are the people these companies can especially exploit.”

Sunshine also emphasized the uncertainty of these situations, though more in reference to the structure of the bureaucracies involved. “These things are very, very hard to get to the bottom of,” he said. “You have a lot of parties involved here, and their roles are usually defined by contracts.”

It is hard to decipher exactly what occurred this summer, due to the conflicting versions of the story, but what is certain is that workers did file complaints of pay and workload issues, possibly stemming from the firing of 32 workers last year, and that the Living Wage Campaign got involved.

Though the battle with LBR has been largely resolved, the Living Wage Campaign says it will continue to fight for the rights of workers. And at the campaign’s first meeting’s end, Norris union steward Maurice Nix appeared for a final word. “People are less afraid than they were last year,” he said. “And we’re in it for the long haul.”