On the same day that University of Vermont staffers voted overwhelmingly against unionization, a small group of custodians at St. Michael’s College  made labor history.
For the first time in the Catholic college’s 108-year history, a group of its employees opted last week to form a union. Custodians decided 18 to 17 in favor of organizing as an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Once certified by the National Labor Relations Board, the vote means the workers will be able to bargain collectively for a contract governing wages, benefits and grievance procedures.
Pro-union custodians said they wanted to unionize for several reasons. They claimed pay increases in recent years have been minimal to nonexistent. After several years of recession-related pay freezes, this year’s 2.5 percent across-the-board increase for St. Michael’s employees amounts to $9 per week — after taxes — for the 35 custodians, whose wages start at $11.50 an hour.
In addition, the college recently switched health plans — from Blue Cross Blue Shield to Cigna — costing workers more in co-insurance and deductibles. Custodians complained, too, that pension contributions have been inconsistent. And lastly, the custodians wanted a binding grievance procedure to give workers an avenue to appeal disciplinary actions exacted by their managers.
Assisting in the organizing effort was the St. Michael’s student group SLAM, short for Student Labor Action Movement, which hosted biweekly “coffee breaks” for custodians to offer them pizza, coffee and soda. Meeting with night-shift custodians during their scheduled breaks meant the undergrads had to convene at 5 a.m. — a time when some college students are just going to bed.
On the night before the vote, SLAM held a rally for custodians at two in the morning — again, to coincide with their break — attended by some 40 students.
To pro-union custodians and the students who supported their drive, the union vote represented a victory for the school’s stated values of “truth, justice and charity.” Among them is custodian Graham Lebel, a 10-year employee of St. Mike’s. His grandparents were union members at the Colt’s firearms factory in Hartford, Conn., and his mother works as a unionized teacher. He’s come to believe that “unions do good things.”
“I want people to work in an environment where they’re not terrified of their boss,” Lebel said during an interview with custodians and students after work last week. “I want it so that they’re able to plan how much their contributions will be to health insurance and pensions, so they can figure out three years ahead what their income is going to be.”
Lebel and fellow custodian Pratit Gurung, a Nepalese immigrant who has worked at the college since 2011, started organizing workers last February with the goal of unionizing all physical-plant employees — from HVAC to maintenance and grounds crews. But when it became apparent that a majority of those workers didn’t favor unionization, Lebel and Gurung narrowed the goal to one they thought they could achieve: unionizing the three dozen custodial workers who clean bathrooms, mop stairwells and wax floors.
Mark LaFountain was initially skeptical about signing onto the union drive. He first encountered St. Mike’s as a kid in 1968. Watching college basketball games in Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium, he said he “got totally hooked on this place.”
LaFountain worked for years as an independent distributor of snack foods — seven days a week, 14 hours a day. After selling that business, he applied for a job at St. Michael’s, but, at $11.50 an hour, he said he couldn’t afford to accept the offer. “After a while, they came back and offered a little more and said there was a chance for advancement, so I took it,” LaFountain said, before adding, “There’s no real chance for advancement, though.”
That’s a concern for SLAM, formed six years ago by student activists to pressure the college to bring its policies in line with its Catholic values. The group’s first campaign was aimed at ridding the school store of clothing made in sweatshops. Later, it helped custodians win the right to wear shorts in the summer. In advance of the union vote, it circulated a petition supporting their right to organize, gathering signatures from 10 percent of the 2000-person student body and 27 faculty members.
“A Catholic college like St. Mike’s embodies certain social values,” said Jerry Carter, a senior sociology major from Mashpee, Mass. “It’s very important to treat with respect and dignity the people who work here. It’s important to pay them a livable wage and to ensure they have a healthy work environment. As of now, they’re not getting that.”
“Unless you count pork-chop day,” said custodian Tom Kingston, another organizer of the union drive, referring to a yearly meal served to custodial workers.
“And don’t forget hot-dog day,” added LaFountain.
In an email to faculty, staff and students, St. Michael’s president John J. Neuhauser wrote that the vote “reveals a clear division but does not change the fact that we are a community … The college also has a strong record of support through every means possible for the people who work here and make this a vibrant, caring, successful community.”
Michael New, the college’s vice president of human resources, said St. Michael’s respects everybody’s right to choose when to join a union, adding, “The culture at this college speaks to that right.” New said St. Mike’s does have a grievance procedure and that wages are “as good as or better than similar jobs in the area.” Workers get four weeks of paid time off when they start — in addition to Christmas week and six paid holidays, New added.
For now, the custodians are focused on negotiating a contract to address wages, benefits and grievance procedures. But they see other “low-cost or no-cost changes” that could improve their work situation. One idea is for the college to pay custodians a fee — perhaps $2 — each time a supervisor calls their personal cellphones. Similarly, custodians suggest the college might reimburse workers for use of their private vehicles on campus. A third idea is to increase the amount of vacation custodians can roll over each year, from three to six weeks.
Greg Callahan, a New Hampshire-based AFSCME organizer, cautioned that the new union shouldn’t expect any sudden improvements. Typically, first contracts are about “preserving what they already have, then we try to build from there,” he said. “It’s a process. It takes time. But just to have a grievance process is going to be a huge improvement for them.”
Anti-union custodians see a number of worrying “repercussions” stemming from unionization. In a flyer distributed to colleagues before the vote, St. Michael’s custodians Ann Michaud and Paul Shaw warned that pay increases and better benefits will lead to tuition increases, which in turn will result in lower student enrollment. Lower enrollment equals layoffs. “SMC will eventually have no choice but to outsource your job to a staffing agency,” the pair wrote to fellow custodians.
Custodian John Waldron voted “no” in last week’s union election. But he doesn’t believe the worst-case scenarios predicted by Michaud and Shaw, describing their claims as “garbage.” Waldron suspects the custodians simply won’t get the pay increase they’re after — or, if they do, every other St. Michael’s employee will get the same benefit.
“I think the college is going to have a very difficult time giving one small group a big pay raise and not giving it to everybody else,” he said, noting that’s how the recent 2.5 percent raise went down. Meanwhile, union dues amount to a payroll deduction. “I think, in that sense, we’re going to be paying a price.”
Waldron works night shifts cleaning the campus student center, Alliott Hall, and he’s the only custodian on duty Friday nights. That means he gets a lot of “emergency calls” to clean up “vomit and stuff.” Still, Waldron said St. Michael’s is one of the best employers he’s had, noting the generous vacation policy and medical and dental plans. The college didn’t let a single employee go during the recession.
“I was laid off from IBM, laid off from two other jobs in the last 10 years,” said Waldron, who has worked at St. Mike’s for a year and a half. “There’s lots of companies that have gone out of business. Energizer just shut down up in St. Albans. This is not an easy time and, to me, the individuals at St. Michael’s have fared way better than most anyone.”
Graham Lebel agreed that he and other St. Mike’s custodians could have it far worse. “I could be cleaning toilets for Monsanto,” he quipped.
Meanwhile, Carter and student activists are already envisioning their next organizing drive. One potential target: the privately contracted cafeteria workers employed by Sodexo. Carter said they endure “some of the worst working conditions on campus.”
Freelance writer Kevin J. Kelley contributed reporting to this article. Kelley teaches journalism as an adjunct professor at St. Michael’s College.