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Rallying for custodian rights

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Ian Morgan holds a megaphone as Cindy Gorn speaks to other protestors about labor justice before marching to the Magnuson Health Sciences Center.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho – team cleaning’s got to go!” shouted a crowd of 40 to 50 students and community members assembled outside of the Magnuson Health Sciences Center. After posting a large “wanted” sign picturing the custodial swing-shift manager, Andre Vasquez, on the entrance where UW custodians clock in, the throng of protesters continued their chanting.

Democracy Insurgent, a labor-justice organization that brings together students, faculty and community members, was largely protesting custodial managers Vasquez, Allegra Reynolds and Yank-Sook Choe, accusing them of disregarding workers’ injuries, humiliating immigrant employees, and intimidating workers when they organized in opposition to the current conditions. They demanded they be held accountable.

Ian Morgan, a Democracy Insurgent member and assistant teacher for Seattle Public Schools claims there has been “harassment” from managers in different areas.

“Stuff like extreme micromanaging of time, intimidation,” Morgan said. “Especially for those who try to speak out or hold meetings with their coworkers about their situation.”

Based on talks with individual staff members, Democracy Insurgent claims that the university is blaming budget cuts for increased workloads, accelerated cleaning and unsafe conditions.

“The work assignments used to be between 20,000 to 35,000 square feet,” said James Stephen Wilson, a member of the custodial staff since 1985. “They’ve extended those work areas to 60,000 square feet. That would be the difference of what three-and-a-half custodians used to have done.”

Morgan and his peer Eakta Khangura coordinated the protest on the UW campus because they believed students and service-based workers share an inherent connection when targeted by budget cuts.

“If students want to be effectively able to fight and prevent these cuts to student services and cuts to library and library materials, cuts of writing centers and cutting disability studies and for the women’s center, then it is necessary that they fight alongside workers,” Morgan said.

Democracy Insurgent has been involved with the UW custodial staff since spring, when the administration attempted to move several swing-shift custodians from overnight to dayside, a move that would’ve cost many their jobs.

After releasing an open letter to Vasquez in mid-December, the harassment worsened, Morgan claims.

“That Tuesday, [Democracy Insurgent] was meeting with workers during their break time, and toward the end of the meeting, a UW police officer burst in and started asking questions. We see this as an intimidation tactic; the police should not be snooping around,” Khangura said. “Workers have the right to meet with each other during their break time.”

Staff reported continued aggravation on the part of custodial managers and police officers. Though the protest focused on the three core managerial heads, Khangura and Morgan believe that the abuses are a direct reflection of a general attitude toward immigrant workers.

“The custodial workforce is about 90 percent or more … immigrants of color coming from east African countries, east Asia, the Philippines, Mexico and Latin America. There is a prevailing sense among the custodians that because English is not the first language for any of them that they can more easily be exploited,” Morgan said. “We definitely see this as an instance of racism at the UW.”

Managers Vasquez, Reynolds and Choe were not available to comment.

Reach reporter Celina Kareiva at news@dailyuw.com.

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