About 50 people gathered in front of the Elliott School of International Affairs building Friday charging GW’s trustees, who were meeting inside, with supporting unfair treatment of Colonial Parking employees.
At 8 a.m., GW students, parking garage employees and union organizers, undaunted by freezing rain, rallied in front of a Colonial Parking garage on 19th and G streets and marched to the Elliott School to urge GW to sever its ties with the parking company.
Marchers, holding aloft union placards and passing out flyers, peacefully confronted some members of the Board of Trustees. The 35-person board met Friday morning to approve a tuition increase and evaluate GW’s financial health (See “Board passes 5 percent tuition hike”).
Several students from GW’s Progressive Student Union and Jewish Progressive Political Association participated in the demonstration, using a bullhorn to highlight what they said were substandard wages and health benefits given to Colonial Parking employees.
“We want to show GW that students know and students care about what is going on,” said senior Allie Robbins of the Progressive Student Union.
Since Colonial Parking garages operate in GW-owned buildings at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. and 2100 Pennsylvania Ave., protesters said the University is obligated to ensure workers’ rights by either abandoning its business partnership with the company or forcing it to change its practices.
“We are demanding that GW do business with companies that act responsibility,” said Ann Swinburn, a research analyst with the Hotel Employee Restaurant Employee Local 27 Parking & Service Workers’ Union.
“What matters is GW is giving its money to a company that is paying workers poverty wages with high-cost health care and not respecting the right to organize,” she added.
University officials, meeting on the Elliott School’s seventh floor at the trustees meeting, said GW would not distance itself from Colonial Parking.
“Colonial Parking is a tenant of the University, so it’s like saying that we have some duty to run the parking lots,” said GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, holding a lime green flyer that a protester gave him.
The University’s relationship with Colonial Parking, which operates 60 garages around the country, extends back two generations.
Thaddeus Lindner, the company’s chairman, and his son Eric are GW alumni and former trustees.
The Lindner family has made substantial donations to the University, and the Elliott School’s Lindner Family Commons and the Lindner Scholarship are named after them.
While protesters disparaged GW for its connections with the Lindner family, their greatest complaint was that Colonial Parking employees paid too much for health insurance. Members of HERE Local 27 said that most employees pay $373 a month to provide health insurance for their families.
“Some workers at Colonial Parking are paying over $100 a month for individual health care, and $400 for family health care,” said D.C. Jobs for Justice organizer Mackenize Baris. “If they’re making $7 or $8 an hour, they can’t afford that. Union employees pay $5 for individual health insurance and $100 for family health insurance.”
Colonial Parking President and CEO Andrew Blair said his company offers several different plans for health care.
“(W)e offer four or five different health care options which are variously priced,” said Blair in a phone interview Friday afternoon from the company’s Delaware headquarters. “Right around 50 percent of employees who get insurance purchase single coverage insurance which costs $32 per month.”
“(W)hat most people buy by far is HMO single coverage, which is an extremely affordable health care benefit,” he added.
Protesters also complained that many employees have been fired from the company.
“We want justice at work,” said a parking employee who requested anonymity. “We get fired for any reason and we have no rights, no freedom of speech.”
Blair said he disagrees with the worker’s assertion, and that many employees stay at Colonial Parking for a long time because the company is “a pretty good place to work.”
“Fifty percent of our employees have been with us for three years or longer,” he said. “We’ve worked hard for a long time to make this a great place to work, but some people are unwilling to admit that.”
Many protesters also said that Colonial Parking has taken steps to keep workers from forming a union and is discouraging workers from organizing.
“The company has told workers they don’t need a union, and Colonial Parking won’t meet with the union,” HERE Local 27 President Roxie Herbekian said.
Blair said his company has not discouraged workers from organizing and that he wants workers to express their concerns.
“I have not been invited to meet with the union, and I have not written or said anything to our employees on the subject of unionization,” Blair said. “We have an open door policy. No one has made me aware of issues, problems or things we need to respond to, so I have not responded.”