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Custodial Firings at St. Michael's College Lead to Accusations of Union Busting

Local Matters


Published September 18, 2013 at 10:24 a.m.

Tom Kingston
  • Tom Kingston

Saint Michael’s College prides itself on a long-standing commitment to social justice, highlighted by the involvement of many faculty, staff and students in the civil rights and peace movements. “The college’s performance in this regard can withstand close scrutiny,” assures St. Mike’s spokeswoman Buff Lindau.

But in its 109-year history, the Catholic school’s progressive principles have never been tested by an in-house union demanding livable wages. Until now.

“The college does have good intentions, but there’s a disconnect in how we’re treating workers,” says Kirsten Wilson, a St. Michael’s senior and a leader of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM).

Wilson is referring to the recent firings of two employees who were key organizers of a successful effort last year to unionize campus custodians. The sacked pair and their supporters accuse the college of trying to intimidate union members by decapitating the campus branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

“They’re using the Walmart and McDonald’s playbook,” St. Michael’s political science professor Bill Grover says in regard to what he sees as strong-arm tactics on the part of management. Acknowledging that “the college isn’t doing anything illegal,” Grover says administrators are hoping the union “will just go away without engaging in union-busting per se.”

The union’s standing is far from secure. The custodians voted 18-17 last November to affiliate with AFSCME, and with two “yes” votes removed from the equation, the union might well be rejected by the remaining members of the campus cleanup crew. U.S. labor law allows for a union decertification vote to be held one year after establishment of a collective-bargaining unit. That means the St. Mike’s custodians could be facing another internecine showdown in two months.

For its part, the college maintains that the two night-shift maintenance workers, Tom Kingston and Dannis Hackney, were dismissed due to performance problems. Personnel policies and privacy protections prevent the school from publicly specifying what those were, Lindau says.

She responds with incredulity to the claim that St. Michael’s is using union-busting tactics. “It’s mystifying to me,” Lindau says. “The college would never let anyone go because of union activities. It would be stupid to do that.” The union-busting charge is “totally false,” she declares, noting that none of the other custodians, including three members of the union negotiating committee, have experienced punitive actions.

Along with its social conscience, the Colchester institution touts the strength of its community bonds. Almost all of the 2000 undergrads live on campus and can easily talk with professors and counselors. Some faculty members and staffers, as well as administrators, view the coming of a union as a divisive development that will shift the purported campus mindset from “we’re one big family” to “us versus them.”

Like most small liberal arts schools in the Northeast, St. Michael’s is feeling the demographic squeeze — there are fewer college-age Americans — and increased pressure to tailor its degrees to the job market. A shortfall in enrollment this year prompted the school to impose a salary freeze for staff and faculty; top officials took a 5 percent pay cut.

Custodians earn a starting wage of $11.50 an hour, and some say it’s hard to get by on that. As one local barometer, Burlington’s livable wage ordinance sets the rate at $13.94 an hour.

St. Michael’s is meanwhile spending at least $500 an hour for the services of a Burlington attorney with a reputation as an anti-union specialist, suggests James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers’ Center. Both Haslam and Grover characterize this lawyer, John Maitland, as “a union buster.”

The Downs Rachlin Martin law firm’s website says Maitland counsels employers on handling “difficult employee issues.” In cases where management is dealing with a unionized workforce, “John provides daily labor relations advice to assist the employer in maintaining an effective and strategic relationship with the union,” the firm adds.

Union supporters are enlisting outside aid, as well. The head of the Vermont branch of the AFL-CIO was scheduled to join activists from other labor organizations, along with Progressive Burlington City Councilor Rachel Siegel, at a press conference on Wednesday on the steps of the college’s chapel. An advance announcement said the group would call on St. Michael’s to commit to paying its workers a livable wage.

St. Michael’s president Jack Neuhauser told student activists in a meeting last week that the college qualifies as one of the best employers in Vermont, according to SLAM member Wilson, who took part in the meeting. The school does offer full-time employees a comparatively generous set of benefits, including health insurance, and operates what administrators say is an effective in-house grievance procedure.

Ann Michaud, a custodian who voted against unionization last year, agreed in an interview on Sunday that “we can go to HR whenever we have issues,” referring to the school’s human resources office. The union won’t achieve anything positive for the custodians, Michaud predicted, adding she hopes it will be decertified if there is a vote in November.

Wage rates and the custodians’ contributions to benefit packages are among the issues being negotiated between AFSCME and the college’s attorneys and officials. A deal could be reached quickly and easily, Kingston muses, if St. Michael’s “just copied the contracts of custodians at Burlington High School and UVM.” Both of those groups of workers belong to unions, Kingston points out, and have thus been able to score gains that St. Mike’s custodians would be happy to achieve.

Asked if firing Hackney and Kingston amounts to union-busting, AFSCME official George Lovell responds, “Certainly we suspect that’s the case.” The union is considering filing an unfair labor practices complaint with a federal oversight board, he says.

Kingston and Hackney say they aren’t contemplating legal action of their own. Kingston, who worked at the school for 14 years, adds that he would return to the job if that option were offered. His duties were “not complicated, and the community was pleasant,” Kingston said in an interview on Saturday. “The positive feelings I have about St. Michael’s can’t be erased by the anti-union decisions taken recently.”

Kingston said he had been given more onerous assignments after helping lead the union drive, and was subjected to new rules. One example: In July, he learned he could no longer bring his bicycle into the building during his night shift. “There are faculty who ride bikes and bring them into buildings,” Kingston points out.

In the view of union supporter Grover, the administration’s claim of having fired Kingston and Hackney for cause amounts to “complete crap.” Custodians experience “an accumulation of insults” at the hands of their supervisors, charges Grover, who joins SLAM members at regular 2 a.m. coffeehouse meetings with night-shift workers. “They’re treated like mentally incompetent fourth graders, and that really pisses them off,” adds the poli-sci prof, a member of the Vermont Progressive Party.

Hackney, who worked at St. Mike’s for nine years, says he was told his dismissal was due to absenteeism. He had gotten permission from his immediate supervisor to take time off to tour with his metal band, Death, but that decision was overruled by the supervisor’s superior, Hackney recounted in a phone interview from Detroit, where he’s currently promoting a movie about the band. “We all know he wanted to get rid of me because I had a lot of involvement with the union,” Hackney added.

The night-shift boss had been initiating changes in job requirements that most custodians resented, he continued. “One guy would have to vacuum for a whole month, and another guy would be cleaning bathrooms for a whole month, with [the supervisor] trying to make him feel good by calling him a ‘bathroom specialist,’” Hackney said.

“This is really all about livable wages and benefits,” he commented in regard to the unionization move. “We wanted somebody to talk for us. We wanted to form a union.”

Kingston points out that employees without union protection can be disciplined “for any reason or no reason at all.” But with a union comes a legal obligation for employers to take such actions only on the basis of “just cause.” In those circumstances, Kingston adds, any disciplinary step, including firing, can be contested by an employee, with the employer then required to show that due-process rules have been followed.

At present, Kingston wrote in an email on Monday, “the facilities department managers are completely unaccountable. Custodians normally leave either because they are fed up or have been fired without due process.”

Some St. Mike’s alumni have joined the fight on the side of the union. A petition being circulated online calls for the college’s administrators to uphold “the social justice tradition in action and not just in empty rhetoric.” More than 100 alums have signed the petition, which warns, “Until the college does the right thing, we will not donate another dime to the school.”

About 400 students have signed a separate petition drafted by SLAM. Wilson, one of the group’s leaders, says she’s motivated to fight for the union in part because of her experiences as one of four siblings raised in Burke, Vt., by a single mother. “We lived at the poverty level,” she recalls. Wilson adds that she feels compelled to take part in the middle-of-the-night meetings with custodians out of solidarity with her mother, who also worked the third shift for a time.

Sentiment on the predominantly liberal campus is not uniformly pro-union, however. The 400 students expressing support for the custodians represent one-fifth of the college’s undergrads. And two faculty members, who did not want to be named because of concerns about offending some colleagues, say many teachers have misgivings about the campaign in defense of Hackney and Kingston and the attendant charges of union-busting. “It’s not nearly as simple a situation as is being portrayed,” says one of these profs. “It’s not true that the college is evil and the other side is good. That’s just a cartoon.”

Full disclosure: Kevin J. Kelley is a former adjunct professor at St. Michael’s College.