Attending a Jesuit university, students frequently hear about the core value of cura personalis, or care of the whole person, but does this principle extend to the workplace? Students, faculty and staff packed the Mezzanine of the John A. Barone Campus Center on Nov. 29 to examine the treatment of workers on campus.
The event was organized by Fairfield University Workers United, which is a group that hopes to reinforce the connection between all workers on campus. “Whether you’re cleaning a bathroom or teaching anthropology, you matter,” said a member of FUWU Dr. Maggie Labinski, Ph.D. assistant professor of philosophy.
Labinski explained the purpose of the event was to promote solidarity and to help get rid of the divide between faculty and staff who, “stand as a collective voice.”
The event began with an introduction by the emcee Rocky Reilly ‘20, “Our group [FUWU] is committed to the idea that in order for Fairfield to be ‘the modern, Jesuit, Catholic University’ everyone – including our workers – must be treated with the utmost respect and dignity.”
The first speaker was Dr. Daniel Cosacchi Ph.D., a Canisius Fellow and a lecturer in the religious studies department, spoke on the Catholic Church’s position on workers’ rights. “The dignity of the worker has been at the heart of Catholic social teaching for over 1000 years,” said Cosacchi.
Under the principles of Catholic Social teaching, Cosacchi contends, the issue of workers’ rights should be of the same importance as abortion.
In regards to not paying workers a fair wage, Cosacchi said, “the Church has a word for that, it’s called sin.” The crowd replied with a vehement applause.
Other members of the faculty who spoke at the event included: Dr. Sonya Huber, Ph.D., associate professor of english, Dr. Elizabeth Hohl Ph.D., assistant professor of the practice in the history department and member of the Non-Tenure Track Faculty Committee and Dr. Irene Mulvey, Ph.D., professor of mathematics and current president of the Faculty Welfare Committee.
The event also featured local labor organizers. Tom Wilkinson, Vice President of the Connecticut American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Workers, spoke about the history of labor unions in America. Alberto Bernardes, a member of 32BJ, which is an affiliate of the service employees international union, William Lynn, business manager and international trustee of international union of operating engineers Local 30 and Todd Leveen, shop-steward, also spoke at the event.
Two students spoke at the event, Julia Farrell ‘20 and Sean Tomlinson ‘19, as members of the Students and Workers United club. They spoke about the working conditions of the custodial workers on campus.
Farrell and Tomlinson described an environment in which staff are under constant stress. Workers are asked to complete unreasonable amounts of work and are sometimes not given the proper equipment necessary to complete their work.
Farrell cited the example of someone being asked to sweep but only being given a dustpan and not a broom. One issue that was raised by Tomlinson was that custodial staff are required to do strenuous work even while pregnant.
Tomlinson detailed a culture of silence among the custodial staff. Workers were issued warnings that they should not speak to students. Those who went to the University’s Human Resources department to complain about their working conditions were turned away.
The event is just one in the history of labor issues on Fairfield’s campus. Last year, students participated in a protest at the stag statue protesting the treatment of ABM workers. In 2016, the Faculty Welfare Committee held a similar event where professors and staff came together to discuss labor issues on campus.
Tomlinson, who was one of the organizers of the protest last fall, became involved in the issue after forming a friendship with a custodian in 70 McCormick Road residence hall. “After a while, we built a friendship and she felt more comfortable sharing her actual working conditions and some of the things that were going on, which made me sort of sad and upset,” said Tomlinson.
She then talked to other custodians and found the problems were not limited to a single individual but rather were true across campus. Since last year Tomlinson has continued to work on raising awareness for the treatment of ABM workers.
There was an “art installation,” in McCormick on Nov. 27 displaying trash in the hallway with the phrase “Your Life without Custodians,” written above.
Students for workers rights put together a pamphlet entitled, “Jesus was a Janitor.” The handout features quotes about workers rights submitted by students. Quotes include: “is the American dream really a dream or just a pair of words that spell slavery…” and “A workplace should not incite fear.”
Tomlinson cites two major obstacles to improving working conditions for the custodians: the University’s unwillingness to even address the issue, and student apathy.
Despite the efforts of herself and other students, Tomlinson says that conditions are the exact same as they were two years ago. “The official statement from our administration is that they don’t see an issue with how the custodians are being treated especially since it’s done through ABM. They think any of the problems occuring are directly the result of ABM management not their own,” said Tomlinson.
There is also a lack of transparency from the administration, Tomlinson has been unable to see the contract Fairfield has with ABM.
Regarding students’ lack of engagement with the issue, Tomlinson hopes events like the one held on Nov. 29 will involve students in the problem.
“We have so much power on this campus and students make it super easy for the administration to do nothing about it,” said Tomlinson, “If they’re not getting feedback from students and being pushed to do something, to treat people better, they’re just going to continue doing what they’re doing to save a few bucks.”
Reilly ended the event harkening back to the Jesuit values, “I think that last comment speaks to our Jesuit values. They [administration] tell us to light to the world on fire and fight for social justice. But when we try to light a match they come in with a fire hose.”