Above Photo: The five-year contract, ratified June 29, puts every Teamster at Ivy League UPenn on a progression to top pay. Jesse Zhang.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Teamsters Local 115 members at the University of Pennsylvania are celebrating a contract victory that eliminates two-tier pay for housekeepers, over the resistance of their own union officials.
“In my 31 years here, this is the best contract I’ve seen,” said member Theresa Wible. “We haven’t seen raises like this since the ’80s, and I’ve never seen our union hall this packed.”
The 550 campus Teamsters are mostly housekeepers, and 250 of them had been stuck on a permanent bottom tier.
The five-year contract, ratified June 29, puts every Teamster at Ivy League UPenn on a progression to top pay. This year the first tier is making $25.12 an hour and the second tier is at $20.90, but by the end of the contract every housekeeper will get $28.68.
Members also won annual raises ranging from 3.5 to 4 percent, additional paid vacation days over Christmas, and Juneteenth as a paid holiday—all thanks to a contract campaign organized by members, with the support of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
“TDU gave us the tools to organize and fight back, and members did the rest,” said custodian Chris Buggey.
“Support from our local leadership has really been nonexistent,” said housekeeper Jawuan Thomas. “They told us we would never get rid of the two-tier system: ‘It’s in all our contracts, shut up about it.’ But we abolished it in one shop.”
A Unifying Issue
Members started organizing months before their contract expired. Vince Gifoli, a 30-year Teamster, was one of a handful of rank and filers who got the ball rolling.
Gifoli was looking for a way to rebuild the unity that was once the cornerstone of Local 115’s strength. He isn’t a housekeeper himself—he’s one of the hard surface custodians, who clean and shovel the paved walkways on campus—but he saw that two-tier was the major issue that could bring everyone together.
He and a few co-workers decided, “Let’s try to get a movement started to end this, and that’ll bring more unity back into the shop, which will make our local stronger in the long run.”
Local 115 needed it. “The union is in shambles,” Thomas said. “Business agents who don’t come to their shop locations. Shop stewards who discourage and who mishandle grievances. An executive board that really doesn’t take into consideration its membership.” But he was inspired by Wible’s stories of how powerful the local used to be.
The activists started by handing out Weingarten rights cards, informing members of their right to bring a union steward along to any meeting with management that could result in discipline. Then they put together a bargaining survey and collected responses from 200 members.
‘Where Have You Been?’
Reaching the three shifts of housekeepers, custodians, and drivers was a major task. It meant waiting at time clocks all over campus, at all hours of the day and night, to talk with workers on their way in or out.
Some people didn’t even know they were in a union, Gifoli said. Others “thought we were union officials from the local, and they were mad at us, because ‘Where have you been?’ I tried to explain we’re just rank-and-file members like you, trying to get a good contract.”
But when people heard about the grassroots effort, some wanted to lend a hand. Medhin Girmy was one of them. “I’ve worked here for seven years, but this is my first time getting involved with my union,” she said.
Girmy is originally from Ethiopia; many UPenn housekeepers are immigrants from East Africa. She translated the bargaining survey and other leaflets into Amharic so her co-workers could better understand and discuss them.
The survey results revealed overwork, seniority violations, and rampant harassment by management—especially for the housekeepers, who are employed by UPenn but despotically managed by the corporation Aramark.
The growing group of rank-and-file organizers created a text-message group and started holding conference calls. They shared the bargaining survey results with their co-workers, who were appalled, and with union leaders, who seemed unmoved.
Rallied At Union Hall…
Next the organizers started mobilizing their co-workers to show up at the union hall for the monthly membership meetings, which had been poorly attended till now.
They got about a dozen people the first time. Each month, the number grew; by May, there were 50. Girmy brought 16 new members from her community to these meetings, she said, “because I know how important it is to unite in the struggle for equal pay.”
“We organized carpools,” Thomas said. “We organized demonstrations before the 10 o’clock union hall meeting—we would tell people to come at 9:30 and circle up outside and have a pep talk.” They rallied with two goals: ending two-tier pay for housekeepers and fighting for fair raises, after working through the pandemic without receiving hazard pay.
Once inside the meeting, the workers would ask for information on their contract bargaining—how was it going? Who was on the negotiating team? Could they have a meeting about the proposals? “Generally it was ‘no, no, no’ all down the line,” Gifoli said. But the more people showed up, the more seriously they were taken.
Typically Local 115 suspends its membership meetings over the summer. With their contract still outstanding, the members present demanded to vote on that—and voted no. Monthly meetings continued.
…And On Campus
With a month till contract expiration and still no news about negotiations, in June members organized a rally outside the university president’s office—teaming up with another campus union, the Philadelphia Security Officers.
For Girmy it was her first time attending a rally—much less speaking at one, which she did. Many of her co-workers were scared about the risks, and so was she.
“We weren’t sure what was going to happen,” she said. “There was a lot of misinformation; everybody doesn’t exactly know our rights. People told me, ‘We’re going to get fired. We’re not allowed to do a rally. We’re not allowed to wear our uniform when we do rally.’” She sought out the correct information and worked hard to help her co-workers find their courage.
Thomas was impressed with the results. “A lot of new faces showed up,” he said, “a lot of people on the bottom tier. People of East African background who were being harassed and abused by management because of the language barrier—they showed up in numbers.”
The rally drew a crowd of 70 campus workers and supporters, along with ABC news and campus newspaper Daily Pennsylvanian. The growing rank-and-file activity and public support put pressure on management and the union to address members’ demands.
The timing helped too, Thomas believes—the university had just inaugurated a new president, making administrators extra-sensitive to bad press.
“We are pushing the union, ‘Do your job,’” Girmy said. “That’s why the employees started using our voice.”
Building On Victory
Members are planning a barbecue in August to celebrate their contract victory and talk about what’s next.
“We had a big win, but the work isn’t done yet,” said member Shaun Flannery. “We need to continue making our voices heard and staying strong, especially on issues like distribution of overtime and harassment.”
“With our local dragging their butts on certain issues, we’re trying to school the members on how to file a correct grievance,” Gifoli said. “The more you do that, the more the union and management is going to be like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to start doing things right.’”
If this group can keep turning out strong numbers to union meetings, they can win further changes—like making shop steward an elected position.
Thomas also hopes to start a welcoming committee that will get new hires involved in the union. And this October, he wants to bring a group of Local 115 members to the TDU convention for the first time. “After this ratification, we’re not done,” he said. “We’re coming back strong.”