“We are rallying for higher pay because UNC has increased our workload due to understaffing,” declared Robin Lee, a housekeeper and UE Local 150 member at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “We should get paid for the hard work we do, often above our job descriptions, to keep the university clean.”
Lee was one of over one hundred housekeepers and their supporters from UNC who rallied on February 22 to deliver their demands to the university system’s Board of Governors. Their demands — that the UNC System raise its minimum wage to $20 per hour, end its pay-to-park requirement for workers, and officially recommend that the state legislature repeal its ban on public sector collective bargaining — were outlined in an open letter the union published on the same day.
“The cost of gas, food, rent and everything is going up,” said Saw Moo, a housekeeper and UE Local 150 member. “Housekeepers deserve $20 per hour. We clean restrooms, offices, classrooms and everything. We are very good workers and work hard for the university. We are asking that they help us provide for our families. This is why we are here for the rally.”
Local 150 members picketing outside the Board of Governors meeting in Raleigh.
Fearful of facing the workers’ protest in Chapel Hill, the Board moved their meeting at the last minute to a swanky hotel, the Dillon, in downtown Raleigh. Nevertheless, the workers followed them and held another rally that same afternoon as their meeting was ending. Workers rode the elevator up to the ninth floor of the Dillon to confront the decision makers. Later, as board members were leaving the meeting, they were forced to either walk or drive through a strong picket line outside the hotel. Housekeepers from nearby NC State University also joined this action.
Housekeepers have been engaged in an aggressive campaign over the last six months to raise their wages. In September, union members and housekeepers Robin Lee and Chineka Stanley, spoke with the campus newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, during Housekeeper Appreciation Week. Their speaking out sparked a mass movement.
Lee and Stanley collected written statements from 21 housekeepers in their zone. The union published these statements on social media, allowing the world to see directly the workers’ frustration at understaffing and being overworked and underpaid. A petition in support of the housekeepers’ demands garnered over 2,200 signatures from housekeepers, graduate workers, other campus workers and students, including others across the state’s 17 UNC System universities. This petition was delivered by a mass rally of over 150 people to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz last October.
After this action and the continued media attention, housekeepers then brought their demands to the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. After their pressure and press event, they were invited inside. Robin Lee was allowed to make a stirring plea to the body. As a result, Lee and two other housekeepers were invited to meet with Vice Chancellor of Finance Nate Knuffman. The workers were told that the university could not raise their wages because, ever since the union won a wage increase to $15 per hour a few years ago, they were above the official pay scale. The university officials claimed that the Office of State Human Resources was blocking any further increases.
However, on December 14, Knuffman issued a memo stating that he got permission from OSHR to increase housekeepers’ salary ranges up to $21.40 per hour, and gave most housekeepers a 90-cent raise, to $16.71 per hour. Although workers were upset at the small increase, this confirmed that organizing could win pay increases. Even better, now UNC-Chapel Hill did not need OSHR approval to pay $20 because of the new pay scales. University workers at the state’s other 16 universities, however, did not get this same raise.
UNC Housekeeper Aung Than addresses the rally in Chapel Hill.
Housekeepers continued to meet and organize, pressing management for answers about the new pay scales, which were not consistent with the state’s “career banding” policy. While UNC-Chapel Hill housekeepers received a 90-cent raise, supervisors received a raise of over $4,000/year and managers over $8,000/year. In early January the union submitted a letter to UNC Classification and Compensation Director Adam Beck, demanding an explanation.
In response to this letter, the university began sending management around to all the zones where there was union activity to explain to workers how it worked. However, when the Assistant Director showed up and union workers began asking questions, it was clear that he, too, did not understand! The union secured a commitment to a written explanation within 10 days, which was provided the week before the planned rally on February 22. That explanation only further angered workers.
Then, the day before the February 22 rally, the UNC System issued a memo about a “retention bonus” they were offering workers to stay for another year. Again, this only upset workers further. Anyone who decided to leave before the 12 months were over would have to pay back the bonus.
Many workers characterized the bonus as a back-handed bribe. “It’s a slap in the face again,” Robin Lee told the crowd, holding a copy of the contract then ripping it to shreds.
Workers vowed to continue their campaign until they win, including taking demands to the State Legislature, which is now debating its 2023-24 budget.
Videos from the rally can be seen on the UE Local 150 YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/@ue150ncpublicserviceworker5. Coverage in the Daily Tar Heel (the UNC student newspaper) can be found here.