On the afternoon of April 17, a group of over 200 custodial workers, students and staff took to the streets for a rally at the University of Southern California in support of USC custodians’ fight for economic justice. A band of snare drummers and chants of “Qué queremos? ¡Un contrato! Cuando? ¡Ahora!” (“What do we want? A contract! When? Now!”) filled the central plaza of the USC campus, until the rally marched to the USC Village – the university’s new $700 million commercial and student-residential project.
The protest’s demands were for fair, competitive wages as well as reducing out-of-pocket costs for workers’ healthcare. As with many colleges and universities, USC contracts its custodial services to the third-party corporation, Aramark. Maria, an Aramark worker, explained that Aramark “wants to give us $1 and change for the next four years as a raise, but they want to increase our insurance[costs]” as workloads continue to increase.
The rally and march were organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union representing more than 1.9 million workers and with representation from the United Service Workers West branch.
Student activism has been a key part of the struggle, with Undergraduate Student Government senators passing a resolution to increase compensation and benefits for custodians and demanding comparable pay to downtown workers only the previous week. Stephanie Solis, the lead student organizer of the rally, commented on how “It was very important for me to put the custodial community’s voice first, and to have them at the table when we were making the resolution.” Her own labor activism began after a class which elucidated the distinction between so-called “skilled” and “unskilled” labor, and due to her own experiences as a part of an immigrant family with a mother in the custodial field.
Cesar Quiles-Borrero, a representative of SEIU as well as the lead negotiator and lead organizer of the rally, attested that “We believe it’s not fair that somehow they’ve been treating us as second-class Trojan Family members. The university praises how great it is working here, and its magnificent benefits, but somehow the custodians have been left out of that whole equation.”
This move comes during a period of general unrest for school workers in Los Angeles, as earlier this month 94 percent of SEIU local union members voted to support a strike if contract negotiations do not succeed.
“We all want to be happy, to be seen fairly, to be seen equally. As we all know there is a huge sense of inequality right now,” added David Mendoza, another custodial worker.
On April 25-26, the union will meet once again with Aramark, with the contract expiring on April 27. April 28 will bring a vote of the union, and if the contract terms are rejected, “The workers are ready to do whatever it takes,” according to Quiles-Borrero.
Until then, the workers will not be intimidated into backing away from their demands. Despite all the challenges, workers and students will continue to fight until justice has been achieved!