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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: UNC housekeepers deserve better

20221028_Joshi_university-housekeepers-protest
UNC housekeepers march with posters during the UNC Housekeepers March & Rally on Oct. 28, 2022.

On Feb. 22, on the steps of South Building, UNC students and UE 150, the local workers union, gathered to demand what housekeepers deserve: a livable wage. 

A crowd of housekeepers and students chanted, “These low wages have got to go.” One student stood carrying a sign that said, “work for pay not pay for work.” The union was demanding a wage increase to $20 per hour and free parking on campus.

A stark contrast of hypocrisy colored the protest. This institution advertises safety, equity and opportunity, but its inaction means exploitation and disrespect for UNC’s hourly employees.

UNC’s housekeepers are an integral part of the University. Their job description includes "daily routine and detailed cleaning of assigned campus building interior and exterior areas including but not limited to offices, lounges, restrooms, student housing, classrooms, laboratories, entrances, exits and stairways."

That’s a tall task.

For an institution as reputable as UNC to have full-time employees unable to pay rent or support their families is nothing but disgraceful.

Endless cycle of finger pointing

What the housekeepers are asking for is not excessive. It will not put a strain on the school's finances or force them to cut positions. However, the Office of State Human Resources sets pay bands for housekeepers and, according to UNC Media Relations, the University has maximized the available increases in pay under these current bands. 

"University Housekeepers at UNC-Chapel Hill are compensated at the top of the current allowable ranges," a University spokesperson told The Daily Tar Heel.

The wage increase is less than the bare minimum the Office of State Human Resources should be doing for housekeepers. In fact, $20 per hour is below a livable wage for a large majority of people living in the Durham-Chapel Hill area. 

After months of housekeepers asking for a pay increase, the University announced in December a raise of 90 cents — to $16.81 per hour. UE 150 and UNC students have been fighting since September. 

“They thought we’d shut up,” then-Campus Y Co-president Laura Saavedra Forero said in a speech at the Feb. 22 rally. “But here we are months later.” 

Saavedra Forero helped to organize the protest. “I stand on the shoulders of giants," she said. "Campus Y is responsible for generations of work and solidarity."

The UNC administration claims the 90-cent raise is a victory, and that it and the Board of Trustees advocated on behalf of workers to make this change. 

The Board of Governors is granted certain power over salaries. According to the UNC Policy Manual, "The Board of Governors shall issue a resolution each year that interprets legislative action regarding University employee salaries or delegates such authority by resolution as it deems appropriate to the president."

This separation of power leads to an endless cycle of finger-pointing and ultimately inaction — especially on issues adverse to the institution's agenda.

At the end of the day, a 90-cent raise is a slap in the face to our housekeepers.

UNC is the System's flagship institution. The BOG and the N.C. General Assembly appoint members to the BOT. They and the chancellor's office have a lot of power. Choosing to accept a 90-cent raise, which translates to just an additional $36 each week, and marketing it as something that workers should be grateful for is dishonorable.

If UNC's administration cared, it would advocate on behalf of the workers it represents. It would be working with OSHR to increase the allowable salaries for service workers on campus. It would be working with its staff, not trying to placate them with distracting raises and a bonus program designed to shut down dissent. 

A statement from the University says it is committed to supporting all faculty, staff and students:

"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. Additionally, over the past year the University has increased the graduate student stipend two times, resulting in the largest single year increase in Carolina history. We continue to work with the System to address these issues. Maintaining our supportive and responsive environment for all faculty, staff and students is a priority for the entire Carolina community.”  

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A bonus with fine print

In the 2022-23 Operating Budget Book, UNC published priorities of “Supporting Carolina’s Excellence," with its first goal being to “Retain and recruit top talent through salary and market rate adjustments”. Though, the BOG evades a $3.19 wage increase to support the very people who make our campus safe. The Budget Book prioritizes supporting a “diverse faculty” while it continues to oppress and ignore Facilities Services, one of the most diverse departments on campus. 

In February, the University offered employees a bonus of up to $3,974 in two installments. It’s a retention bonus, with terms stipulating that any employee who transfers, quits their job or is written up will not receive the money or would have to pay it back.

The message is clear: if you want to keep the bonus, you’ll shut up and sit down.

At the protest, UNC housekeeper and organizer Robin Lee held up that contract and tore it in two. The crowd went crazy.

Another housekeeper, Tracy Harter said the contract was “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.”

This injustice goes beyond the contract. Manipulation exists in the small print. 

UNC housekeeper Saw Moo and his family moved to the U.S. from Myanmar to escape civil war in the country. They all work as housekeepers at UNC, and many other employees have similar stories as first-generation immigrants who speak English as a second language. Offering thousands of dollars to people who need a bonus, but may not fully grasp the convoluted clauses of the complex contract, is an act of exploitation. Because, at the end of the day, UNC only advertised the bonus, not the small print payback.  

The power in union – and collective bargaining

Even worse, the law that prevents state employees from using a union to collectively bargain for higher pay and better working conditions is a Jim Crow-era law that was designed to limit the negotiating power of Black workers. The law specifically bans the state from recognizing contracts negotiated between government agencies or employees and unions.

This is problematic — collective bargaining is an essential tool for workers. 

Imagine you have a stick. Breaking that stick in half doesn’t require much energy. But if you were to break a bundle of sticks in half, it would take a lot more effort, if it's even possible at all. 

This is the general theory behind unions and collective bargaining. A single worker does not have much leverage over their employer. They can threaten to strike or quit, but that one worker can be easily replaced. But if a company's entire workforce or even a significant majority strikes or threatens to walk out, that can grind a company's work to a halt. 

State law, while allowing government employees to join a union, strips them of the legal ability to strike or collectively bargain and, in the process, allows the University to ignore and exploit them. 

UNC graduate student and union leader Trey Anthony said the law, “profoundly affects our organizing. It kinda shoots us in the leg a little bit, even when it comes to recruitment."

This collective bargaining ban isn’t universal across the country. The University of Michigan, for example, has a fully unionized graduate student population that negotiates its contract with the university every year. This last year has seen workers at public universities across the country go on strike, from the UC system in California, where they won a contract, to Temple University in Philadelphia. 

If UNC housekeepers were to go on strike the way Lenoir Hall dining workers did in 1969, they’d be putting their jobs, livelihoods and families at risk, potentially for very little gain — as any resulting contract couldn’t be legally enforced. 

UNC, a government institution, might not have the same profit motivations as a private company, but that  does not mean that University workers don’t deserve the same protections as those who work for private entities. 

The administration is limited by OSHR pay bands but is not limited in how it can respond to such bands. UNC housekeepers deserve recognition that they are not being paid what they are worth and what they deserve. They deserve for the University to advocate on their behalf. 

Instead, the University has responded with makeshift resolutions, subsequently silencing students, fighting its faculty and pointing fingers.

However, on Feb. 22, UE150 and UNC students ensured that this problem would not be swept under the rug. 

Twenty dollars per hour and free parking for housekeepers are less than what they deserve. 

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com