When people meet Robin Lee, she tells them to call her Miss Robin.
She is 62 years old and has been working as long as her daughter has been alive — almost 47 years. Lee arrives at the University at 6:30 a.m. every morning and works another job twice a week.
Earlier this semester, she compiled a list of demands from housekeepers across zones at the University. She scanned the 21 handwritten notes, most of which advocated for higher wages, and sent them to her supervisors and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.
Lee has been a housekeeper at the University for three years but has worked for the state for seventeen.
She said that her emails were ignored.
“I just hope I stay here long enough to see the change,” she said. “I’m struggling at this moment. I’m actually really struggling staying here.”
Trying for higher wages
In September, Lee connected with representatives from The Workers Union, a University branch of a national organization for state employees. With the Union, the group narrowed their demands to two specific requests: $20 per hour wages and free parking.
They launched a social media campaign, held a rally and went to a Board Of Trustees meeting last Wednesday to present their demands.
Lee was greeted by two members of the BOT and the chancellor. They accepted her demands and invited her inside, where members of the Board gave the housekeepers a standing ovation.
The chancellor and members of the board said that they were committed to the housekeeper’s cause. Guskiewicz added that he is in communication with UNC System leaders and the North Carolina Office of Human Resources, which sets employee pay bands.
Most employees of the University have to be paid within the range of the pay bands, which are decided by the national labor regulation and local market rates determined by the NCOHR.
After explaining the situation and thanking Lee, they told her that she was welcome back anytime to express further demands.
Afterward, the housekeepers met outside with union members and supporters. Lee was in tears and said it felt good to finally be heard. Union members cheered with students. Then, the housekeepers went back to work.
Now, Lee and her peers are refusing to let up until their ultimate goals are realized. Lee said she has not heard from administrators since the meeting, but she remains determined to see the Union’s demand through to the end.
Along with members of the Union, other students are in support of the housekeepers and their requests.
Alice Knight, a student employee at the Carolina Union, was in attendance to support the housekeepers.
“They're not paid a fair living wage. They're doing physical labor,” Knight said. “And, I think that their conditions are indicative of a lot of workers who are expected to give their time and their bodies almost fully to their jobs without being fairly compensated or fairly recognized.”
Knight said that they would love higher wages themselves, that everyone should be paid more, but that the work they do for the Union isn’t comparable to what housekeepers do. Their flexible hours and part-time effort makes a huge difference, they said.
However, the housekeepers typically do not have either of those benefits.
“I think that it's really important that we understand our community, with the full-time staff and how those relationships need to be improved,” Knight said. “Because, if we as students are not advocating for them, then how can we expect the administration to advocate for them?”
Members of Civic Engagement and Outreach Services of student government echoed similar ideas to Knight's.
“I think one of the most important parts about going to a public institution is holding your leadership accountable,” Lauryn Taylor, a first-year and staff member for CEOS, said. “I think part of it's like coming to UNC and being selected to go to such a prestigious university.”
CEOS is organizing an event this Friday to fundraise for the housekeepers. The event, "Support UNC Housekeepers: A Showdown Between Residence Halls," will be held in Woolen Gymnasium on Friday at 5:00 p.m. It is co-sponsored by the Union of Black Men, the Black Student Movement, The Workers Union and the Residence Hall Association.
Members of CEOS said they each had personal relationships with the housekeepers and wanted to do something to help as soon as they heard about the housekeepers’ situation.
“It's really important to me to put on this event, and not only to show our support to the housekeepers, but more importantly, show students that they can help out,” BJ Tillman, the co-director of CEOS, said. “And, they can do it in a way that's meaningful and effective in a way that they can feel proud of.”
The students are planning to work with housekeepers directly to figure out how they can best distribute the funds they raise at the event. Because housekeepers are state employees, there are certain limits on what can be given directly.
Each of the group members said they were hopeful, both for this event and the change it may produce later.
“I think I could definitely see how students would be disappointed with this University or maybe unhappy with some of the things they see going on,” Jordan said. “But I think that unhappiness is really an opportunity to create the change you wish to see.”
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