Labor Organizing During Covid-19: A University Janitor’s Account

A University of Washington custodian gives their personal account of workplace organizing under Covid-19 and the importance of labor organizing in this time.

By BeauJon McNally

I love working but I hate jobs and I hate capitalism. The state of our modern economy is such that even after squeezing in a Bachelors in Anthropology, I work in custodial building sanitation at the University of Washington. I clean the offices and bathrooms of my former professors while earning almost half below the poverty level in my city. As of this writing on April 1st, we just lost our first UW custodian to the Coronavirus, roughly two weeks after a prominent professor from the Department of Pathology succumbed to the virus. With rolling infections, fevers and deaths, we can expect case spikes every two to three weeks until there’s a vaccine, or we “flatten the curve” through physical distancing. 

Unions in the Time of Crisis

Custodial workers and others like me are on the front line of flattening the curve. In the wake of this Covid-19 crisis I’m considered essential staff and one of the few who still have a job during the virus outbreak. I’m not thankful I still have a job, I’m thankful that I have a union that I’m active in. 

All criticisms of unions aside, and they’re plenty to list, working class power in unions remains important. Union density makes up about 10% of the workforce in the US and 18% in Washington state. From the UFCW grocery worker keeping your food stocked to the SEIU, AFSCME or WSNA nurse that takes you in at the hospital. The operator that transported the goods from the dock to the store or hospital was probably a Teamster. Where would we be without the ILWU longshoremen that unpacked the medical freight? Or the IBEW electrician that keeps the power on, the IOUE worker that maintains water treatment and operations, the ATU bus driver for emergency staff? And there’s of course the AFT and WEA teachers scrambling to turn their classes into online courses. 

Organized labor might still be small, but unions can still do something not a lot of organizations can do, and that is punch well above its weight. The union isn’t collective bottom up rank-and-file power, it is the application of collective bottom up rank-and-file power. It is what the members allow it and make it to be. When workers take control, or divorce economic and political will from power, workers can shake the city.

Organizing in the Covid Crisis

To folks outside of workplace organizing, walkouts and strikes seem like events that burst from the seams of conflict. In actuality they are grown over time from relationship building between coworkers. Management intentionally maintains confusion within the ranks and exacerbates divisions along race and other lines for the purposes of labor management; if everyone is mad at each other they can’t coalesce around challenging power. Despite this, it is because of the past year of consistently showing up for fellow custodians that I can listen to their stories and help them to take a stand with me. 

Organizing during the Covid-19 pandemic takes extraordinary trust, political sobriety, and an honest understanding of what’s at stake. For over a year prior to the outbreak I had been organizing other custodians through walk-out pledges. Last December, I was voted in by custodians to be on the next bargaining contract team. With social distancing in place I’ve been making use of remote communications, which is a challenge because of the massive language and digital literacy barrier. Most of my organizing is over the phone in one-on-one conversations or through text messages punctuated with phone calls. 

Bosses Endanger Our Lives

As the Covid crisis hit in mid-March, all masks and eye protection were reserved for the University of Washington Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center. Even though university classes were transferred to online formats, custodians were still considered essential staff. Custodial regular Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were nitryl gloves and masks for those working around asbestos and eye protection for our chemical station. When I asked my manager if I had missed any additional training, they handed me a list of new duties and tasks. I clarified that I was asking for new safety protocols, and my managers told me “it’s just like the flu,” and to change my gloves and wash my hands.

In addition to sanitizing our buildings, UW Building Services treated the health crisis like a snow day or summer break, an opportunity for floor stripping and rewaxing, retiling and all sorts of other building services we typically do in the summertime. The first strategy when organizing my coworkers was to get them to phone blitz the UW President Ana Mari Cauce. Our asks were simple, hazard pay, better PPE or put us on paid leave. If you cannot inspire your coworkers to make some phone calls, you’re not going to be able to convince them to walk out with you.

In addition to the phone blitz there was state-wide pressure on Governor Jay Inslee who by March 25th, gave his stay-in-place order for the state. The result is that our staff of thirty was reduced to ten per day with the other twenty on paid leave. I’m only working two to three days a week but still at my regular minimum wage salary. We still do not have hazard pay or upgraded PPE. 

Capitalism, Corona, and Workers Power

The US has built up over the last forty or so years a socio-economic tinder box that Covid-19 is burning through. About one month into the Coronavirus crisis and over 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment. It has laid bare the inadequacies and contradictions of not just capitalism, but capital oriented infrastructure. And we are now at a bottleneck with labor at the center. What we must continue to do at my worksite is pumping the prime with organizing each other, digging up more coworker phone numbers until we have a tight web of custodians in communication with each other. With the difference of five days being life or death during Covid-19, we have to have the ability to pivot and grow our collective confidence together. 

I am working class because even though I could stop identifying as anti-capitalist, as an anarchist, at any time, I cannot change my economic situation. I am one militant worker who cleans toilets for a living in a large union local attached to a massive employer, associated with an even bigger state and national union. If I could cause as much change as I have this past year, but especially during the Covid-19 crisis, imagine how much more could change if more political radicals reintegrated and deepened our involvement in labor struggles. 

The times ahead are calling into question capitalist social arrangements and economic dominance. The system is on the skids but it’s up to us to actually change it into something diferent. If we’re going to build the new world out of the shell of the old it’s going to be labor, like me, like us, that will build it.

BeauJon McNally is a University of Washington custodial worker.

If you enjoyed this piece we recommend reading “The Case for Building New Unions” or our labor analysis and strategy piece “The State of Labor: Beyond Unions, But Not Without Them.”