Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

45° Evanston, IL
Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Email Newsletter

Sign up to receive our email newsletter in your inbox.



Speaking out, cleaning up

For more than eight years, janitors Michal Wasewicz and Ryszard Cebenko have worked at Northwestern for the Aramark company.

How long have they been friends?

“From the beginning,” they say at the same time and laugh.

Together they’ve worked in NU’s Technological Institute, emptying the garbage and mopping and buffing the floors. Eight years.

Now, making $6.95 an hour and working without health insurance, Wasewicz and Cebenko are taking a stand together.

Since their chapter of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1, began a push for improved wages and benefits for NU janitors two weeks ago, the two have quickly assumed prominent roles in the campaign.

Wasewicz is the man on the fliers and in the newspaper advertisements. Cebenko is the man addressing the crowds through a translator.

They say they’re not angry about their situation; they just want what’s fair.

“After being here for so long and seeing that people are doing the exact same work for more than we are being paid, we feel that this is an injustice,” Cebenko says.

Wasewicz says the same.

“This is the only choice we have left.”

• • •

They came to the United States to make money after Poland’s communist regime collapsed, taking the economy with it.

Wasewicz came to the United States in 1991, and Cebenko came in 1992.

While working in an airplane factory in Poland during the early 1980s, Cebenko was an active member of the Polish Solidarity movement.

Solidarity officially began in August 1980 after electrician Lech Walesa led a strike of 17,000 workers at Poland’s Lenin Shipyard.

This event triggered other workers throughout the country to begin strikes at their workplaces, and they eventually won better freedoms, wages and benefits from the Communist government.

“I wore my Solidarity band (a red-and-white armband used to show Solidarity membership), and I took part in the movements like all the workers,” he says. “The Solidarity movement was a nationwide movement, and workers showed support by coming together.”

Of the current situation, Cebenko says change can come only if the workers are united.

“It’s all about trying to solidaritize the workers and trying to fight together for a common cause. We’re not only fighting for benefits for the Polish workers. We’re trying to get change for everybody, so this can benefit everyone here.”

Solidaritize. He uses the word “solidaryzowac,” a Polish word with no real English equivalent. “Solidaritize” is a made-up word, but it gets the point across, says the translator.

The Solidarity movement in Poland shaped the nation so much that it got into the Polish dictionary as a verb.

Today at NU, there are no armbands and the contracting companies and university administrators certainly aren’t communist rulers. But worker-management conflicts come in different shapes and sizes, and now a new movement has begun at NU.

• • •

At a rally Tuesday at The Arch to promote the union’s efforts on campus, Local 1 organizer Jeff Danielski told the crowd of more than 200 people that raising the wages of NU’s contracted janitors closer to the $10 to $13 level that other Chicago-area universities pay was “a very basic issue.”

“It’s fair, it’s reasonable, it’s simple. They’re not asking for more than anybody else, they’re just asking for the same as everybody else,” he said.

The union also has said the other Chicago universities provide full family health care to their contracted janitors, a benefit most of NU’s contracted janitors do not receive.

NU uses janitors from Aramark, Kimco Staffing Services and Millard/Admiral Maintenance, but Local 1’s contracts with each of the companies has expired. The Aramark and Millard contracts ended in April; Kimko’s expired on Thursday.

Negotiators are currently working on creating new contracts.

Despite the union’s demands, the contracting companies say their NU janitors fall under an April agreement that covers workers in commercial office buildings.

According to Eugene Sunshine, NU’s senior vice president for business and finance, the contracting companies have said they have begun to give their NU janitors the higher wages and health insurance specified in the April agreement.

But Danielski said NU’s contracted janitors are not under the agreement and that his union never would have agreed to lump university janitors into an office workers’ contract.

Local 1 leaders have been calling on NU to support the changes they want, but Sunshine has said the janitors’ situation is “an issue between contractors and the union. These are not our employees.”

The union has a strike vote for NU’s contracted janitors tentatively scheduled for Saturday. Even if the janitors voted to stop work, however, Danielski says the union might not strike immediately but instead could allow negotiations to continue.

If and when it did occur, a strike could have major effects on NU operations. According to Local 1, the 150 contracted janitors take care of about 70 buildings on campus, including many dorms, Norris University Center, the University Library and Tech.

Wasewicz and Cebenko, who also works at the Catalysis Center near Tech, say they have reservations but are ready to strike.

“Of course we’re all afraid of this, but we have to do something,” Cebenko says.

“We’ve grown to like this whole atmosphere of students, of the university,” he says. “And we can walk away from here, but the fact of the matter is (that) a just price for the labor that’s done here has to come about.”

• • •

Honorata Swierzbinska, another Aramark janitor at Tech, came to work for the company at NU a year ago, bringing high hopes for the new job from her non-union job at an office building.

“When I heard that this was a union building, I of course accepted the job in hopes of health insurance and more vacation time,” she says. “So I had to hope this (job at NU) was going to be better.”

Now, she acknowledges, “Everywhere it is the same.”

Wasewicz and Cebenko, on the other hand, have known for a long time what it’s like to work at NU for Aramark. After eight years at their jobs, they’ve grown to enjoy them. But they still make $6.95 an hour.

Swierzbinska, with only a year on the job, makes the same amount.

If Local 1 does prove successful in getting higher wages for NU’s contracted janitors, Wasewicz says the janitors could live easier lives.

“If we had that, then we could work less and rest like normal people do,” Wasewicz says. “One job could be enough to take care of our bills.”

“Above all else, it would stop you from feeling like you’re a zombie or just finished off a fifth of vodka,” Cebenko adds, laughing.

It’s a joke he has told several times in various wordings over the past week, but it always goes over well. Those who know Polish laugh as he says it, and those who don’t know Polish laugh when the usually chuckling translator says it in English.

The audience that laughs the longest are the Polish janitors gathered at The Arch for the Tuesday rally. With their night shifts at NU and the second or third jobs some of them have, most got even less sleep than usual before going to the demonstration at noon.

Wasewicz said he got four hours; Cebenko and Swierzbinska said three.

“You do what you have to do,” Wasewicz says. “When your strength runs out, you’re done with life.”

Danielski translates this with a thoughtful look on his face. “They’ve got a pretty stoic view of life,” he says.

His and Cebenko’s day starts at NU at 5 p.m. and, stopping for only an unpaid half-hour lunch break, they work until 1:30 in the morning.

Then they go to a factory where they will do janitorial tasks for the rest of the night. Around 7 a.m., they arrive back at their homes on the North Side of Chicago, do whatever needs to be done there and finally get five or six hours of sleep.

Swierzbinska, like many of the women who work the night shift at NU, works as a maid during the day and usually gets only about four
or five hours of sleep, even less than Wasewicz or Cebenko.

With their house-cleaning work, it is common for the women to sleep less than the men, Cebenko says.

“A person is just overworked at this point,” Swierzbinska says. “There’s no free time, no time for family and no time for home.”

She took part in a 48-hour hunger strike in April in support of the suburban office workers, but she could only participate for 24 hours because she had to go to work the next day.

“We’re in a no-win situation,” Swierzbinska says. “If we leave here and go back to Poland, we go back to unemployment, and if we stay here, we have to continue to work under these conditions. There’s no way out.”

• • •

In January 1997, Wasewicz collapsed while working at Tech, leading to six months of no work and no pay.

“The students saw me collapse and called for the ambulance,” he says. “After that, no one took any interest.”

Gallstones were found in his pancreas, and he needed an operation. After the surgery, medical tubing put inside him created complications, and he would spend the next three months in the hospital and nearly three more recuperating at home.

His time spent in recovery cost him almost half of his wages for the year and, without health insurance, he was left struggling to pay bills.

While Aramark offers no health insurance to its NU janitors, Kimco and Millard only offer the benefit if janitors accept lower wages. “All employees who decline the single Health and Welfare coverage shall receive an additional 45 cents an hour in wages,” the companies’ expired contract with Local 1 reads.

Wasewicz scoffs at the idea of his company helping him when he was sick. “Aramark? Absolutely not,” he says. Instead, he says it was his co-workers who helped him.

“When my friend was sick, we all came together and raised funds to support him,” Cebenko says. “During the time he was hospitalized, he had no way to support himself because he was getting no compensation.”

But even following Wasewicz’s hospital stay, he still faced astronomical bills.

After working out a deal with the state to handle some of the bills, Wasewicz was left with about $78,000 in $100 per month payments — a fact Local 1 organizers almost never forget to leave out of conversations about the janitors’ situation.

That works out to about 65 years worth of monthly payments. At 55, Wasewicz knows the hospital and his doctors will never get all of their money.

Situations such as his bring up another one of the organizers’ arguments: When poor workers who are uninsured get sick or injured, the government often ends up with a large chunk of the workers’ medical bills.

“It’s taking the costs and sloughing them onto the taxpayers,” Danielski says, and tax increases hurt everyone, including other janitors.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in September that 15.5 percent of the nation’s population, about 42.6 million people, had no health insurance last year.

• • •

Local 1’s Danielski is fluent in Polish and Spanish and switches between them flawlessly when speaking to janitors of these ethnicities, the two that compose most of the contracted janitorial staff.

His skills and the bilingualism of many of the other union organizers have united the very diverse group in the movement at NU.

At Tuesday’s rally, the two ethnic groups kept to themselves, but not out of dislike.

They cheered for speakers talking in languages they don’t know, and everyone joined in when the famous soccer chant went up, “O-le! Ole, ole, ole!”

Most of them speak Soccer, and all of them speak Union.

Despite their language and ethnic differences, the janitors say they are bound by their common economic condition and desires for change.

“We have the same language; we can talk to each other,” Swierzbinska says. “We have the same sense of trying to get something done.”

Andrea Onofre, who cleans in Kemper Hall, is one of the Millard workers who receives health insurance in return for the lower hourly wage, but the first thing she says about the insurance is not about what it has done for her.

“Even though I have it, what we want is for everybody to have it,” she says.

And at the end of each month, they find themselves in similar places.

Cebenko, Wasewicz and Swierzbinska each make $6.95 an hour, Onofre makes $7.

When Onofre and her former co-worker Lillian Alday are asked what money they have left after paying bills, they break down laughing. “Nada,” says Alday, who was fired Tuesday. Nothing.

The three Polish janitors say the same.

“We are all immigrants. And we know that obviously we’re going to have to work longer and harder, but at the same time we feel that we should be paid justly for the amount of work and the type of work that we do,” Swierzbinska says.

Like Swierzbinska, Cebenko says he understands that, while pushing for higher wages, “there are proportions about how people are paid.”

“For example, a professor will make more than a janitor,” he says. “That’s obvious. But we, on the other hand, should make enough so that we can live a good life, so that we can provide for all that we need.”

Eight years and $6.95 an hour have Wasewicz and Cebenko prepared to strike — to solidaritize — as members of Poland’s work force did two decades ago.

Their points of contention are less weighty than rights and freedoms, but these janitors say they are ready to strike to improve their quality of living.

“You’ve got to, so we’re ready for it,” Wasewicz says. “We’d prefer not to because we don’t want to damage our reputation with the university, but we’re prepared to do what we have to do.” nyou

More to Discover
Activate Search
Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Speaking out, cleaning up