At a Wednesday rally in front of South Building, UNC housekeepers announced they have been offered a contract from the University.
They said the contract did not address their two key demands: higher wages and free parking. Instead, housekeepers said they were offered a bonus — with strings attached.
“It’s a slap in the face again,” housekeeper Robin Lee said to the crowd, holding a copy of the contract for everyone to see.
Housekeepers across campus have been organizing with The Workers Union since October to fight for their two demands. Their petition had received over 2,000 signatures as of November, and they were invited into a Board of Trustees meeting where Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz expressed support for their cause and thanked them for speaking.
In December, housekeepers received a 90-cent raise, bringing their hourly wage up to $16.81 — and falling $3.19 short of their request for a $20 hourly wage. Their demand for free parking was also left unaddressed.
Many housekeepers, organizers and students alike have said these actions by the University have felt superficial and inadequate to their requests.
Organizing the rally
The Wednesday rally was titled “Occupy the Board of Governors.” Organizers originally planned to intercept the Board of Governors after its meeting. But, upon learning that the location for the meeting changed to the UNC System’s new office in Raleigh, The Workers Union decided to split the event into two parts — a 12 p.m. gathering on campus and a 4 p.m. gathering at the new meeting location in Raleigh.
“The ‘occupy’ language is basically saying that we're going to be at all of the future Board of Governors meetings; I think the next one is in May,” Trey Anthony, the president of the UNC chapter of The Workers Union, said before the rally. “Basically saying that we're going to be present at their meetings for the first year for the foreseeable future. Until our demands are met.”
A variety of student organizations helped coordinate the rally, and representatives from each spoke on the South Building steps between chants led by Union representatives.
“They really thought we were going to shut up," Megan Murphy, outgoing co-president of the Campus Y, said to the crowd. "They thought undergrads were going to forget about housekeepers, that this was going to be a hot-button issue for a couple of weeks. And here y'all are months later.”
Housekeeper testimony and the bonus
After the students spoke, housekeepers took turns sharing their testimonies, each restating their demands and personal reasons for attending the rally. Some housekeepers spoke in Burmese, the native language of a large portion of the housekeepers in attendance.
Many of the housekeepers who spoke encouraged their co-workers not to sign the bonus, citing the “strings attached.” These stipulations were explained in the “Employee Agreement to Repay Bonus” that was printed out and passed around.
“This paper right here tells you that if you get fired, you gotta pay the money back,” Lee said to the crowd. “If you transfer to another facility, you gotta pay the money back. If you get wrote up, you gotta pay the money back.”
The paper states that repayment is required if an employee terminates employment “either voluntarily or involuntarily before the completion of one year (12 months) of consecutive service.” The agreement also states that employees will not be eligible for the final installment of their payment if performance fails to “meet expectations” or “there are documented disciplinary actions for misconduct or performance.”
Tracy Harter is another housekeeper who has been involved in organizing over the past few months.
“That’s a contract set up with all these strings and loopholes and trapdoors in it, so they can manipulate you more and put their foot in your neck even harder," Harter said.
After the rally, Htoo Paw, a housekeeper who is Burmese, said she has been given unclear information on the contract. The University has made no effort to translate for her or her Burmese-speaking coworkers who have expressed similar confusion, she said.
“I’ve never heard about this," she said. "They have to give us money, and we have to sign.”
UNC Media Relations said in a statement that the University is committed to supporting all faculty, staff and students. Media Relations also said The Office of State Human Resources has recently authorized the use of bonus programs to aid in recruiting and retaining employees in positions subject to the Human Resources Act.
"University leadership recently collaborated with the UNC System office to increase the pay range for more than 400 employees, which went into effect in December," the statement said.
Media Relations said the University is continuing to work with the System to address these issues.
Students, housekeepers and organizers agreed that Wednesday's rally was just one of many next steps in a longer fight for the housekeepers.
Laura Saavedra Forero, outgoing co-president of the Campus Y, said the struggle connects to larger problems at the University.
“They're upholding white supremacy," Saavedra Forero said. "They're upholding the patriarchy, elitism, colonialism, imperialism; we're seeing that passed down. The collective bargaining agreement that they won't allow is part of Jim Crow. And that still exists on this campus."
The collective bargaining agreement she referenced is N.C. General Statute §95-98, which prohibits any “labor union, trade union or labor organization” from acting as a bargaining agent for public employees. The Workers Union has been requesting its repeal for months, most recently on Feb. 20 in an open letter to the Board of Governors.
This statute has been on North Carolina's books since 1959, five years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
For housekeepers, the contract and their fight exemplifies a segregation-era dynamic. Though some chose to sign it and others may have done so without a full understanding of what it meant, many said they chose to keep fighting for their full demands instead.
“I hope, I pray that nobody signed this paper," Lee said. "Please don’t sign this paper.”
She tore it into pieces as the crowd cheered.
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