Picketing University of Missouri workers remain worried about jobs
Pamela Stephens is afraid of losing her job, but she’s also afraid for the students and staff of the University of Missouri if custodians are outsourced amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know what we have done to this university to help prevent this,” Stephens said. “We know what we are cleaning, grounds-keeping knows what they are doing. You get an outsourced company in here, they are not going to care about this university like we do.
“Especially those who have been here 40-45 years and have given their entire life.”
She and a dozen or so other facility maintenance workers gathered in protest Friday afternoon at Jesse Hall in an effort to keep their jobs after MU sought bids to replace on-staff landscapers and custodial workers with contracted services.
That is the smaller of the two operations being offered to the lowest bidder, with 31 employees and a general fund budget of $1.4 million. Stephens is among the approximately 250 custodians that represent a cost of $4.9 million annually from general operating funds for indoor cleaning services.
There are 10 vendors seeking that contract.
MU officials are working to cover state budget withholdings, money lost when housing and meal payments were partially refunded and uncertainty about grant and other support. Budget officials have asked division leaders to prepare for cuts of about 12.5 percent for the coming fiscal year.
The Board of Curators last week approved a budget with a 2.5 percent reduction in spending. It also approved a 2.3 percent tuition increase.
Randy Wallace is also a university custodian who said the loss of employment would be devastating to his family. He is not far from retirement and fears that his age would not make him a viable candidate in the jobs market.
“What can you do, but keep on trying,” he said. “I will be 60 years old in a year, so how many people are going to hire a 60-year-old man? I don’t know.”
Affected employees are represented by Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 955 and covered by a collective bargaining agreement. The contract, however, contains a clause allowing the university to outsource maintenance workers, leaving the affected employees few legal options.
“We have a contract, but it gives them the right to outsource if they see fit,” said Local 955 representative Carl Baysinger. “That might not be the best thing, but that is what’s in the contract.”
Collective bargaining agreements aside, Baysinger said the university is more fiscally sound amid the pandemic than has been presented. He hopes college officials will see the human issues tied to the cuts and try to work with the affected employees.
“These people have given their life to their career here,” Baysinger said. “They know MU, they know the buildings they are working in, they know the students. They are just trying to make a living like everybody else and get benefits for their family.”
Many said the cuts were not even formally announced to staff, who found out through word of mouth.
Andrew Hutchinson is an organizer for Missouri Jobs With Justice and has been supporting the affected workers throughout the ordeal. He marched with about 30 protesters through Jesse Hall, which he says drew a stern rebuke by vice chancellor Gary Ward.
The university supports free speech, Ward wrote, but would not tolerate disruptive behavior.
“Should further demonstrations take place, anyone who engages in behavior that is disruptive to the regular operations of the university can expect to be appropriately disciplined in accordance with university policies as stated above,” Ward wrote.
The discipline could range from verbal warnings to dismissals, said Hutchinson, who called it an attempt to intimidate employees.
“Nothing was broken, no one was at risk at any time, police were there and no arrests were made, but Gary Ward was upset at hearing workers’ pain,” he said. “I think he just wants to make budget cuts without realizing those numbers are real people.”