UBCO’s janitors are facing another injustice at work that could cost them their jobs.

Photo by Lauren St. Clair
Photo by Lauren St. Clair

It has been less than a year since the cleaners on our campus organized to join the Justice for Janitors campaign. Despite their hard-fought struggle, UBCO announced last November that it’s considering a change in its cleaning service provider on campus.

The university is currently deciding whether to award the cleaning contract to Best Service Pros, the current contractor unionized with the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), or two other non-union contractors.

While the choice for a new contractor is the university’s right, within the current situation, UBCO has not guaranteed successorship rights. That means if they switch to a new company, workers will not only lose their union agreement, but may lose their jobs. Even worse, choosing the contractor is based on a competitive bidding process, so the university will likely choose the contractor that pays the least money, which will have a negative impact on everyone who studies and works on campus.

Roshawn Nicholson, a worker with Best Service Pros and union shop steward, shares how upsetting this idea is after just helping his co-workers unionize: “It would be a slap in the face if they change the contractor without recognizing what we fought hard to win. Our union drive with Justice for Janitors at UBCO is about improving conditions for workers so we can make this campus a cleaner and safer environment for people to work and learn.”

Last April, UBCO’s janitors, students, and faculty marched in the Justice for Janitors rally, and delivered a list of recommendations urging the university to adopt fairer contracting policies that include a living wage. Other universities across BC held similar rallies the same day.

Photo by Lauren St. Clair
Photo by Lauren St. Clair

Prior to the April rally, Best workers were in an agreement with CLAC, a so-called “rat” union. According to a letter from the UBCO Student Union in support of the UBCO Justice for Janitors campaign: “CLAC limited the wages of workers and provided little benefits over its term. When the 10-year-contract would have ended in 2026, workers would still be making poverty wages that would not even be considered living wages in 2019.”

After months of hearings at the BC Labour Board, in June 2018, the Board ruled the CLAC contract invalid, meaning the janitors at UBCO had an opportunity to freely choose their union. Within a month, the janitors voted to join SEIU with a 90 percent vote. Despite their victory, a possible contract flip could put these workers in a precarious position.

Nadia Khlafa, a shop steward on campus describes how difficult the situation is: “The potential contract change is causing me a lot of stress. For 22 years, I have worked in the janitorial sector with no health and dental benefits. After organizing into a union last year with the ‘Justice for Janitors’ campaign, this is the first time I have had access to a benefits plan. We, as workers, are finally moving in the right direction, but could risk losing what we fought hard to win if the cleaning contract changes without recognizing our improvements and our right to collective bargaining.”

A decision has yet to be made by UBCO regarding the cleaning contractor. But the university can decide right now to guarantee the well-being of the janitors. UBCO has the authority to respect the janitor’s union agreement, and guarantee that the current workers can keep their jobs, benefits, and seniority in the event of a contract change. The university has a real opportunity to support the workers that, as Robert Kilpatrick, a cleaner on the graveyard shift explains, “know the buildings,” and “have formed bonds with the staff.”

Our university should do right by the hard-working janitors and by the students who pay thousands of dollars to study here and deserve a clean and safe campus. Cutting costs in cleanliness is not the way to go. UBCO is a campus with over 9,000 students, and with that comes an equal amount of garbage. A cheaper cleaning company will only cut costs through less workers and lower wages, meaning the people who already work hard to keep our campus clean will have to work harder and longer for less money. While we worry about assignments and essays, these workers are worrying about their jobs and paychecks.

So, as students, and as human beings, we have a responsibility to stand up for those who clean our campus, and to ensure that they are treated fairly. We need to ensure that UBCO guarantees successorship rights for the workers. It’s time to stand up for justice for our janitors, again.