The fight for workers’ rights is as old as the country itself. It has been fought in the parking lots of Ford Motor company, on the docks in Oakland, in the mountains of West Virginia’s coal country, and on the college campuses of Missouri from the Battle of Blair Mountain to the Haymarket square. Workers’ rights are America’s rights. The right to a living wage, health care, a retirement and the right to organize.
In Missouri the defeat of right-to-work in 2018 was not the end of the war against workers. The State of Missouri, and by extension the University of Missouri, has been doing everything it can to chip away slowly and methodically at the rights, benefits and wages of workers in the Show-Me State.
In 2015, the University of MO campus in Kansas City privatized the custodial and landscaping workers. Two years ago, they privatized the food services at the University. Now the University is looking to cut a 12.5 percent budget shortfall from this fiscal year. The University is starting at the bottom and looking to privatize landscapers and janitorial staff.
“We’ve been asking them to actually sit down and discuss this,” said Carl Baysinger, President of Laborers Local 955, which represents the workers. “We’ve been seeking a labor-management meeting for weeks. We’ve notified them that we want to meet. It should have been the first thing that was on their minds when they tried to cut workers. They haven’t contacted us…” While the University has been working out plans for layoffs and furloughs of workers, they have neglected to work with the union who represents these custodial workers and landscapers.
The University has chosen to solicit bids to outsource and privatize the custodial and landscaping operations in Columbia. These workers are deemed essential to the University in the times of pandemic or blizzards, but not from the budget ax. The University defends this by saying that these positions are already contracted out at the Mizzou North and MizzouRec buildings.
The privatization that is being planned would impact 250 custodians, costing $4.9 million, and 31 landscapers, costing $1.4 million. The $6.3 million in benefits and wages would be taken from essential workers who are already struggling to make ends meet in the worst economic crisis our country has ever seen.
Custodian Tammy Walker, 27-year worker at MU, will probably lose her job. “If they outsource, I lose my insurance, and my retirement won’t be enough to pay my bills,” Walker said. “I lose everything.”
“One of the landscapers is one year from retirement. He knows he is going to need surgery on his knees,” stated Andrew Hutchinson with Missouri Jobs with Justice.
In an email to custodial and landscaping employees from Gary Ward, MU Vice Chancellor of Operations: “During my tenure here, the university has experienced other financial issues, but we’ve always found a way to keep both custodial services and landscaping services intact,” Ward wrote. “I value the work you do and what each person brings to the university as you go about your jobs. Yet, in all my time in higher education, I’ve never experienced the degree of a financial crisis that we currently face.”
Actions however speak louder than words. The letter may say the University values the essential workers, but those workers are not even supplied with basic personal protective equipment for them to safely do their jobs. Masks are expected to last a week, and there is no testing for University employees. How does the University administration expect these jobs to be performed safely when students return if they do not even have safety measures in place while the campus is almost empty?
“If you truly value every worker in your division: do not balance the MU budget on these workers’ backs,” wrote Ian Bedell, Business Manager for Local 955. “If you truly value custodial and landscaping departments: do not cut their wages and benefits through outsourcing.”
“I believe they’re just using COVID-19 as an excuse to outsource,” said Baysinger, “Peoples’ lives are at stake. They’ve spent their careers in these jobs. They will lose their careers and their health insurance. They shouldn’t be looking at the bottom line to outsource to justify their cuts. We just want them to stop the cuts.”
This is not a first-time attack on the workers at the University of Missouri. In fact, local unions have been fighting with the University and for workers at the Columbia campus as far back as the late 1960s.
The union at the University first struck for nine days in the spring of 1969 over their demand for formal recognition by the school. The University used student workers to replace the employees during the strike.
In 1972 Laborers Local 45 that represented these same employees went on strike for 16 days over wages and an actual contractual agreement. The University had stood fast for 6 years claiming that the state constitution stated that Missouri constitution didn’t allow for collective bargaining for state employees. The Board of Curators at that time took the position that “they (employees) have a right to join a union if they desire and the union has a right to speak for those employees who are members of the union on wages, hours and so forth.”
When the union went on strike in October of 1972 they did not stand alone. They received support from students, faculty and the Legion of Black Collegians as well as the unions that represented the workers at the Kansas City, St Louis and Rolla campuses. Associate Professor of Sociology Donald Granberg at a rally in 1972 stated that the strike was the “vanguard of an effort to bring the University kicking and screaming into the 20th century.” Which clearly has not played out. The University and the State have continued their abusive attacks on workers.
The University dug their feet in and would not meet with the union to discuss any kind of agreement until the strike was cancelled and the workers returned to work. The stance by the University further added to the animosity of the workers then, like it has done now.
In 1972, the strikers were order to end the picket by temporary injunction ordered by a judge. This was met by union workers wearing Halloween masks so that they could not be identified or punished by the judge or fired by the University. On the 11th day of the strike a non-union worker drove his car into the picketers injuring three union picketers and a delivery driver.
More recently, University officials have opposed graduate assistants forming a union. In October of 2019, the Coalition of Graduate workers won a ruling in the Missouri Supreme Court upholding a previous ruling that the graduate assistants are employees with the right to collectively bargain, but MU officials continue to challenge it.
In the face of everything else going on in this country and on the Columbia campus we are seeing social actions leading the way for change. “With public employees we cannot strike. We can do actions. So, we have done rallies fighting for the people we represent,” said Carl Baysinger.
Social movements are making changes throughout the country in the wake of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Workers are standing up for themselves for reasons deemed essential in title but not in pay or in health and safety.
The protests or “actions” in Columbia have brought together Laborers Local 955, Missouri Jobs with Justice, COMO for Progress, John Brown Gun Club, Mid-MO DSA and IUE-CWA Local 86821. “I think that public reaction and public opinions matter when it comes to this. The optics of this could be devastating to the university,” said Baysinger.
And the community and more importantly the university is starting to take notice. “They sent an email to all employees and staff at the university and told them if they were involved in any actions where they are disruptive at the buildings they will be reprimanded or fired,” said Baysinger.
“We know that MU depends on intimidation tactics and depends on workers not being able to voice their concerns to the community,” responded Hutchinson.
On June 26, the University announced that it would not be outsourcing the landscaping services saving around 30 jobs. However, the deadline of July 1 for a decision on custodial staff has come and gone.
The win for the landscapers is a good first step for the workers at the University. But the respect for workers from the University and the State of Missouri needs to change. Workers that are deemed essential need to be treated with the respect that their essential status deserves. They deserve a living wage, they deserve a retirement, they deserve health care. If we are to rely on them, then they need to rely on the fact that they are being taken seriously and not for granted.
The next step for cities like Columbia will be for activism and the outrage of our current situation to culminate in actual changes to our government and changes for our workers. “This is an election season and we need to start voting for people who are actually going to work for us,” said Baysinger.