The University decided in mid-spring that it would reopen for the 2020 fall semester, a decision that would require drastic, “emergency” changes in our department and to the working conditions of SEIU members. Management didn’t notify union leadership until July 15, when it announced the changes during a labor-management phone conference that had been scheduled for other issues.
During the phone call, the University announced that every building service worker (BSW) in the department that had an assigned work area would no longer be guaranteed that position. This undid years of bargaining enabling workers to bid for more desirable assignments, a right we still maintain per our collective bargaining agreement. BSWs were also told of new shift arrangements, especially the sudden displacement of over 120 BSWs from the early day shift (4 am to 12:30 pm) to an afternoon shift beginning at 1 pm, plus an expansion of overnight and weekend shifts. We were told these changes were necessary to clean public areas and restrooms multiple times throughout the day because of classes being spread out into later hours and on Saturdays.
While we’re not able to challenge shift changes legally (this is considered a “management right” under labor law), we were able, through bargaining over the effects of these changes, to change the afternoon shift from 1– 9:30 pm to 3–11:30 pm, giving afternoon workers better access to parking and a sizable discount on parking fees. Management also agreed to double the size of the 6 am–2:30 pm day shift from the original planned 50 BSWs to 100. Even with these modest adjustments, the changes will still prove difficult for many of our members. Child care is a paramount issue for many people facing a sudden shift from working in the daytime to afternoons/evenings, or even to the deep night shift of 11 pm–7 am, as well as having to work weekends.
Further exacerbating this situation is the danger of exposure to the coronavirus. As tens of thousands of students, staff and faculty crowd our small cities, cases of the pandemic disease are spiking, as they have in every place that has reopened around the country. Even with expanded testing and temperature checks for entry to campus buildings, exposure and infection weigh heavily on the minds of all workers on this campus. Even though most faculty recently declared they would not be teaching in person this fall, and with a reduction of anticipated weekend instruction, we are still being told that we will have to maintain this abrupt and drastic schedule indefinitely.
We in SEIU are demanding that people who will work in areas likely to be exposed receive hazard pay, even though the university has refused that for campus employees as a whole. We still demand the right to bargain over bidding on new assigned areas as soon as possible. Due to privacy concerns, we refuse to install an app on our personal phones that would track our testing results; the university has relented and agreed to make accommodations. And since testing is mandatory, it will be done on university time.
The modest changes we could effect during this summer were due to public pressure from a relatively small but dedicated group of workers, both from our ranks and from other members of campus labor and community activists.
Justus Fortado is a building service worker at UIUC and Chief Steward of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 73 Chapter 119.