Progressive Student Union kicks off ‘radical’ campaign to improve labor conditions

Media Credit: Donna Armstrong | Contributing Photo Editor

Seven members of the Progressive Student Union delivered a letter with 10 demands for improving conditions for GW workers to University President Thomas LeBlanc Monday.

Seven members of the Progressive Student Union delivered a letter to University President Thomas LeBlanc Monday citing 10 demands they said would address “rampant mistreatment of workers” on campus.

The letter, seven members said, was the start of a “radical” campaign asking the University to overhaul its policies and procedures for hiring, maintaining and providing benefits to employees. Students listed an Oct. 10 deadline for LeBlanc to respond to their demands, threatening that “if you don’t stand up for the workers, then we will” – but declined to say in an interview how the campaign would continue.

“The harm done to all GW workers actively damages the same community that your administration showcases as a cornerstone of the university,” the letter states. “When the University intimidates against unionization efforts, pays poverty wages and fails to be transparent with workers, it suggests that community comes at a cost to workers.”

University spokeswoman Lindsay Hamilton confirmed that the letter was delivered to the president’s office Monday. She declined to say whether LeBlanc will respond or take action.

Improving students’ working conditions
In the letter, students demanded that officials address several aspects of student workers’ relationships with the University, starting by recognizing students as employees who are able to unionize.

“It must cease engaging in any intimidation practices intended to discourage workers from exacting their collective bargaining rights,” the letter states.

The University has found itself at the center of two student union controversies over the past two years. In 2016, officials battled resident advisers in front of a national labor board, arguing that the students staffed residence halls as part of their educational experience and didn’t have the right to unionize. The University lost that case, but resident advisers never held an election to unionize.

More recently, graduate student teaching and research assistants have pushed officials to unionize, citing concerns about low wages and insufficient health care plans. But administrators have repeatedly refused to recognize them as employees, and the switch to a Republican labor board has temporarily thwarted graduate students’ efforts.

“If you are drawing a check from the University, you are an employee,” Noah Wexler, a senior and a member of PSU, said. “It’s a union-busting tactic that is used by all kinds of businesses, but uniquely universities, to say that certain people drawing paychecks aren’t actual employees.”

PSU also demanded that officials make work requirements for students more flexible by introducing an online matching system allowing students to switch out of their shifts without directly finding a replacement. The updated system should be in place by the first day of the spring semester, the students wrote.

The letter also tackled student health insurance plans, imploring administrators to offer undergraduate student workers an additional subsidy of at least $1,500 per year. PSU members also ask officials to give graduate student employees the option to enroll in the faculty United HealthCare plan instead of the Aetna Student Health Insurance Plan. The students demand that officials commit to the change by the end of the academic year and put the plan in place by next fall.

Officials overhauled student health insurance plans in the spring, switching students’ plans from opt-in to opt-out.

Revamping employee benefits
The letter outlined plans for the University to boost wages for full-time workers and pay transportation stipends for employees who commute to and from campus.

Students mandated in the letter that officials increase the wage for full-time workers to afford “basic needs,” like food and housing, without having to take an additional job outside the University. Officials must publicly comment on an increased wage by the end of the academic year, the letter states.

“They’d be on campus more, they wouldn’t have to work so damn hard for one and they wouldn’t have to be putting in an ungodly amount of hours,” senior Sam Tiratto, a member of PSU, said.

The letter also pushes the University to offer free transportation for workers who live more than one mile off campus, either offering subsidized on-campus parking or free Metro passes by the beginning of fiscal year 2020.

“A lot of these people are working because they need the money and therefore they need that subsidy in terms of covering transportation,” senior Kiera Manser, a member of PSU, said.

Restructuring the hiring process
The letter asks that officials stop using third-party contractors to oversee employees, saying the University should not renew their outside contracts once they expire to “remove third-party involvement without damaging the livelihoods of any university or third-party personnel.” Officials should rehire employees who worked for third-party contractors after the contract ended, the letter states.

“Having third-party corporations on campus separates workers from students and does not serve any purpose when third-party workers and GW’s own in-house workers perform the same exact tasks,” the letter states.

The letter states that all GW managers should be former employees, allowing workers to move up within their respective departments.

The letter also directs officials to stop depending on temporary workers to “fill gaps in personnel” and instead fill open slots with a permanent worker within three months. When a worker retires, quits or is fired, the University shouldn’t cycle through temporary workers because the practice it “unsustainable,” the letter states.

“They just keep cycling through temps instead of just actually hiring a new person,” Tiratto, the senior in PSU, said. “So there’s been zero growth in the facilities staff number but the University is just constantly re-contacting.”

Clarifying policies and resources
The letter asked officials to clarify overtime policies for employees and asked them to count hours worked during emergency events as double time even if the work doesn’t exceed 40 hours.

“This policy would have to provide designated employees which means they have to come in if there’s an emergency event and school is canceled, know exactly what’s expected of them and how they’re going to be compensated for their work,” sophomore Emily Harding, a member of PSU, said.

PSU members also asked that a “clear plan” be implemented for employees who are forced to work during extreme weather, so that they have access to basic necessities. They also demand that pay for work during emergency events should be fully paid on the closest payday following the event. The students listed the end of the academic year as the deadline for the overtime updates.

The letter also urged officials to give workers an offline system to complete “basic tasks” required of them, including calling in sick, checking schedules or accessing training activities. The members said these services were recently transferred to online-only platforms, which aren’t available to all employees.

They demanded that all employment-related documents be made available online and offline in English, Spanish and Amharic by the end of the academic year.

“There are a good amount of workers who do not have computers, they don’t have access to a personal computer at home, and in some instances they have been forced to scramble to find a computer that they can use on campus to do this training outside of their work hours,” Tiratto said.

Savita Govind and Leila Giannetti contributed reporting.

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