A group of housekeepers, students and representatives from The Workers Union at UNC brought its list of demands and an over 2,000-signature petition to UNC administration last Friday afternoon.
Since the housekeepers first spoke publicly about their concerns about a month ago, some have been meeting with representatives from The Workers Union, a chapter of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union.
They have been preparing a campaign to raise awareness for their two main demands — $20 per hour wages and free parking. Numerous housekeepers said that they have not received any relevant communication from the University, except for an email requesting the staff not to speak to media outlets.
Representatives from both groups said they will continue to collaborate and put pressure on UNC until their needs are met and conditions change.
“This is not a want list”
Tracy Harter, a housekeeper who has been working at the University for 16 years, went into the South Building on Friday to give the list of demands and petition directly to University administrators.
“I just want you to know that this is not a want — these are needs,” Harter said as she handed the list over. “We need this, and we deserve it. And, we would appreciate the chancellor looking it over and giving it serious consideration and even giving us a place at the table that we might negotiate something instead of just getting blown off and saying no.”
Christi Hurt, the chief of staff to the chancellor, accepted the list.Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz himself was not there. Hurt thanked Harter for the list and her organizing, saying the chancellor is committed to the cause and citing pay bands set by the state.
At UNC, salary for non-faculty, non-contract employees must be paid within career-banded ranges, which are set by the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources, according to the state-wide career banding program and the U.S. Department of Labor’s prescribed Fair Labor Standards Act.
In an email statement to The Daily Tar Heel, the University echoed this sentiment.
“University Housekeepers at UNC-Chapel Hill are compensated at the top of the current ranges, and in some cases even exceed the range thresholds because of legislative increases,” the email said.
After presenting the demands, the group moved to the front steps of South Building to continue the rally. At each side of the staircase, representatives from the Union held flags, and a group of housekeepers held a central banner and signs with their demands.
Representatives from the student organizations that co-sponsored the event — the Campus Y, Siembra and The Black Student Movement — took turns speaking to the crowd, emphasizing their individual missions and expressing commitment to the cause. The groups then gave the floor to the housekeepers, who spoke for most of the rally.
When Harter spoke to the crowd, she thanked everyone for showing up for the housekeepers.
“It’s not just demands,” Harter said. “This is not a want list, it’s a list that says this is what we need. It’s a need.”
“Don’t talk to the media”
Chineka Stanley, another housekeeper, said she feared retribution from the University as a result of her organizing. In September, staff of the Division of Finance and Operations received an email that Stanley described as “bullying.”
“It was pretty much, trying to scare us into not speaking to any media outlets, not to speak to anyone who is going to put a spotlight on the situation,” she said at the rally. “So when I say I'm nervous, half of it is because I'm speaking in front of a crowd and the other is being bullied.”
The email Stanley referenced was sent from Nate Knuffman, the vice chancellor for Finance and Operations, to all department staff on Sept. 7, one day before a reporter from The Daily Tar Heel initially reached out to University sources to cover the University’s annual housekeeping week.
The email was supposed to be passed along from supervisors of the department to the housekeeping staff.
“Finance and Operations strives to support the Carolina mission by communicating openly and honestly using consistent and strategic messages with our constituents, including the media,” the introduction of the email said.
The email mentions The Daily Tar Heel by name and tells its readers, “Please do not offer information to the media — even if you do know the answer.”
Robin Lee, another housekeeper involved in organizing, expressed frustration that the email was the only specific, relevant statement she has received from the University, despite saying she had emailed the housekeepers’ list of demands multiple times.
“Only thing they said is 'Don’t talk to the media. If you need to talk, you can talk to us,'” Lee said. “Hell, when I did the demands, that's who I sent the paper to, and you didn’t respond to it.”
In an email statement, the University said the media guidelines email was standard procedure:
“The University does not prohibit any employee from speaking on any topic when they are speaking as an individual, just as the University in no way prohibits a faculty member from speaking about their work or research in any forum, regardless of the topic,” the email said. “Employees or faculty members are asked not to make a statement or speak on behalf of the University, which includes individual units as the memo was outlining, without coordinating with their colleagues among the University’s campus communications staff.”
The body of the email sent to department supervisors outlines a procedure for directing media requests to UNC Media Relations or Stephanie Berrier, who is in charge of communication and marketing for the Division of Finance and Operations.
“Employees, including campus communicators, are encouraged to utilize resources such as the University’s Media Relations department to aid in coordination with media inquiries," the media relations manager said. "Finance and Operations is one of several schools and departments who share a reminder about these guidelines annually, typically at the start of a new academic year."
“We will most definitely win”
Trey Anthony, the president of the UNC chapter of The Workers Union, raised concerns about language barriers in communication between the University and housekeepers.
Anthony said that a lot of housekeeping staff are immigrants and speak English as a second language. These barriers might prevent them from understanding their contracts and advocating for their rights.
“I mean, when we've done canvassing with the housekeepers. We've had supervisors tell them that they're not allowed to talk to us,” Anthony said. “And they don't know any better. Because they don't know the laws. They don't know that it's federally protected, that they have freedom of speech and that they can't be fired for talking or joining a union.”
Harter said that the group of housekeepers plans to continue to work with the Union and further their campaign until they reach their goals. She said she expects them to be successful, especially considering the University’s responses, which she believes to be coming from a place of fear.
“I think that if we keep our eye on the prize, and keep our commitment strong, we will most definitely win,” Harter said. “We are going to prove the naysayers that said they're not going to give us more, we're going to prove them wrong.”
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