A fairly significant event occurred yesterday in the student center at the University of California-Irvine, the insourcing of the campus janitorial workers. For those who don't know the term, insourcing refers to the practice of institutions hiring on employees previously hired by outside contractors as employees at the institution. A lot of times, this translates into bringing non-unionized position into higher paying union jobs with greater benefits, although, in this case, the workers were represented by SEIU. At the same time, having the status as university employees translates into greater benefits, job security, and greater pay. It also brings them into AFSCME 3299. The janitorial workers were the last outsourced employees with the University of California system, although the administration of the system has brought up the possibility of returning to the practice, using the budget crisis as an excuse.
The campaign had lasted four years, occurring after a successful effort to insource the groundskeepers. Although I had been on the outside of the campaign, involved in the occasional rally and letter, the difficulties of winning were pretty obvious. The university was involved in all out campaign against the possibility of insourcing. They used a campaign of deception, lying to both the workers and the general university community, racially profiled the primarily Latino workers, and threatened them with the INS. Additionally, the university tried to use divide and conquer tactics with the workers, offering some insourced jobs, while excluding others. At the same time, the workers saw three organizers come and go within that period of time. The final organizer showed some real commitment to the campaign, but was replaced after the contentious election in AFSCME 3299. At the same time, the workers had a committed group of supporters in the form of the Worker Student Alliance, who supported them through the years. Still, all of these factors add up to a organizing campaign that had a remarkable amount of obstacles to reach victory.
I wanted to give a brief sense of the difficulties in this campaign to give the victory its full meaning despite some of the compromises made. However, I wanted to spend the rest of the post describing the actual day of the insourcing. It was a really strange event, but certainly one that I am glad I attended. We were asked by the organizing committee to play the role of observers in the the process of bringing the workers into the university as full employees. The university had a long record of obstructionism and shenanigans, so the workers wanted to have some solidarity during the process. I was one of a number of people who were contacted about this. I got up at about 6:30 and wondered over to the student center. The insourcing event was heavily marked with signs, and each of the signs had a group of balloons over it, as if this process was some sort of celebration, rather than the last hurdle in a whole series of hurdles put up by the university. A fairly large group of folks was outside in the back of the complex, made up of clergy, organizers, and a few students. I met up with some fellow UAW folks, and we went to get our instructions. The organizers were fully prepared, and asked us to enter into the building to make the workers feel more comfortable entering the process.
As we entered, the room was set up with chairs for the workers to sit, and eight or nine tables manned by Human Resources folks. We immediately set ourselves between each of the tables, and entered our first conflict. We were pulled aside and were told that this would feel intimidating for the HR people, and that we needed to stand in front of the tables. We were also instructed to get name-tags, so that we would not be escorted out of the building. It was pretty clear that the management was pretty freaked out that we were there. I can't deny that it was nice to see the folks who had contributed so much to the difficulties of the workers' situation on the other side of the table so to speak, but we followed through with their instructions so that we could do our solidarity work. We put on our tags, and then returned to our spots, moving the front. HR was still agitated at this point, but we followed their rules, so they couldn't do much more than whinge about intimidation and let us be.
A few minutes later, the workers and the rest of the folks entered. At that point, any semblance of control that HR had over the situation disappeared. The workers basically told management that they have everything in hand, and that they would run the show. They started off with a brief prayer, and then began the process. The workers and the organizers slowly siphoned the workers to the various tables. It was clear that they had already planned their approach down to the order of folks approaching each table. To be honest, the sheer amount of outside folks were overwhelming. Each table had two observers watching it, along with a staff of at least ten if not more floating observers who would intervene whenever there was an issue. Each time a potential problem appeared, the table would be surrounded by organizers and workers. Upper management would quickly appear to smooth things over. Because of this, the process went by very quickly. We were finished within two hours. The workers were left to fill out the less contentious aspects of their paperwork, and we went to grab breakfast over at the local IHOP.
It was a remarkable show of what a group of self-organized workers are truly capable of. The university threw everything it could at these folks, and they won. The experience itself was a reminder of the buried civil war that is at the heart of every workplace within the structures of capitalist exploitation and domination. Those workers, who faced the racist exploitation of both employer and state, managed to temporarily turn the table through their efforts. The rest of us were largely the super-structure to the structure of the worker's self-organization at that point. In his book, Disagreement, Jacques Ranciere argues for a sharp distinction between the categories of politics and the police. The later operates on a logic classification, while the former breaks up those structures of classification in the name of a heterogeneous equality. The policing quality of HR was obvious. It was gratifying to see it overwhelmed by the political power of the workers and their allies. I want to spend a little more time on the relevance of this distinction between the police and politics for our political movements, but this really isn't the place.