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When janitors signed up to work for Catholic University, they didn’t expect to take a vow of poverty.

Anna Arevalo figured she’d hit immigrant heaven when she landed a janitorial job at the Catholic University of America(CUA). A devout Catholic whose husband was killed in El Salvador’s civil war, Arevalo says she considered the chance to mop floors and scrub toilets a small price to pay for a life of freedom. By working for a Catholic college in the capital of the world’s first and oldest democracy, she says through a translator, she believed she’d struck pay dirt for herself and her two children.

Arevalo’s expectations were modest: She thought she could earn enough to support her kids, send money back to her mother in El Salvador, and maybe even move out of her one-bedroom apartment on a crime-torn block of Park Road NW. That day never came. Eight years later, Arevalo says her faith in the school has been shattered.

“They give me more and more work, but not more and more money,” Arevalo tells a representative from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It’s a Thursday in mid-April, and four SEIU representatives are on the edge of campus to give janitors fliers that explain their right to collectively bargain their contract with the institution. Dressed for work in a T-shirt and tattered Air Jordan sneakers, Arevalo pulls her paycheck out of a backpack to reveal her meager two-week take: $535.17 for 88 hours, after deductions for taxes and health insurance.

“This is a big check, because I had overtime,” Arevalo says, shaking her head in disbelief. “One check goes for rent. The other has to get me through the month.”

What baffles Arevalo, more than her continuing subsistence near the poverty line, is her lack of union representation to negotiate a living wage and affordable health insurance. In January, nine months after negotiations on a new custodial contract broke down, she was told by the university that she would receive a 1 percent performance-based raise for the year. She was also told that her union, the SEIU Local 14 National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, had been kicked off campus after nearly 25 years there.

Arevalo says that was news to her—and news to many other custodial workers, it seems.

“They said we voted our union out, but I didn’t recall voting the union out,” Arevalo says. “The only thing we signed was a piece of paper saying we don’t want any more dues taken out of our checks.”

Or so she thought. Allen Siegel, an attorney representing the university, says that maintenance and custodial workers signed two petitions to initiate decertification of Local 14 at a meeting organized by the university. The petitions were circulated after the university withdrew recognition of the union on Nov. 3, in the wake of a dispute over SEIU’s decision to transfer Catholic’s workers to a different local. “A substantial number of employees approached the university and told them they no longer wished to be represented by the union,” says Siegel.

The petitions to decertify Local 14 were submitted to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Nov. 12 and Nov. 19. If the NLRB approves the petitions, says Siegel, then the university will seek a majority vote of the workers to remove the local once and for all. That may take “anywhere from a couple of months to a year” because “it’s a fairly complex case,” says Louis D’Amico, director of NLRB’s Region V, which includes Maryland and the District of Columbia.”Within a month, we hope to have a definitive statement one way or the other,” D’Amico adds.

The labor board’s judgment, in turn, is likely to hinge on whether board members believe the workers read the fine print before signing the decertification petitions, according to SEIU officials. A dozen Catholic University janitors and maintenance workers interviewed for this story claim that they did not know what they were signing. SEIU officials were not informed of the meetings where petitions were circulated, says Emilie Junge, an organizer with SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campus campaign, and the university has yet to supply the union with a copy of the petitions, despite repeated requests.

Junge believes the workers were hoodwinked by a classic bait and switch, expecting only that union dues would not be subtracted from their paychecks. “We suspect that most of the workers had no idea what they were signing. It’s hard to get many of them to admit that they cannot read or write.” Junge says she expects SEIU to prevail before the board. “It was a very clever trick,” she says. “But it won’t work.”

SEIU has been on Catholic’s campus since 1975, and by all accounts most of those 25 years have been amicable. The seeds of the present dispute were sown in March 1999, when Local 14 President Shirley Grasty began negotiating a new contract for the CUA workers. Members of SEIU did not approve of what she was proposing, says Junge. Grasty “was too close to management” and, says Junge, “gave up power to the university—a contract that cut benefits and called for a 2 percent yearly raise.” Grasty did not return calls for comment.

There was still no new contract by the time the old agreement was set to expire, in August, so SEIU, which Junge says was losing faith in Grasty, issued an internal recommendation that workers from Local 14 be transferred to Local 82, under the leadership of Valarie Long. In mid-October, SEIU designated Long as the person to bargain a contract on behalf of the workers—and the union once again recommended that they be transferred to Local 82. Such a transfer needed to be ratified by the workers to be legally binding. The very next day, says Long, she went to the university to talk to the workers about holding an official vote, but she was kicked off campus by security personnel.

Long says that repeated calls to CUA administrator Susan Parvi went unreturned. “When I contacted the university to set up normal bargaining and wanted access to the employees to meet in preparation for bargaining, I was told that university officials would not talk to me,” says Long. “They wouldn’t allow me access. They wouldn’t bargain in good faith. I wasn’t being recognized as someone who could bargain a contract, even though I was authorized by the international union to bargain a contract. They didn’t just sit back and let an internal union matter be an internal union matter.”

Siegel claims that “the employees never agreed by vote or otherwise to be transferred” and that the transfer is therefore “not effective or legal or binding.”

The reason for the lack of ratification for the transfer is simple, says Long: “When my staff went to meet with workers on nonwork time, the custodians and my staff were surrounded by security guards in an effort to intimidate the workers.”

According to Siegel, however, the university had no obligation to listen to Long or her staff. “[The university] didn’t have a contract with Local 82. They had an expired contract with Local 14,” Siegel says. Starting in mid-October, CUA refused to recognize Long or the impending worker transfer. It withdrew its recognition of the custodians’ union in early November, and, soon after, the university filed the petitions to decertify the union. And SEIU, in turn, filed a complaint with the NLRB on Nov. 15, charging CUA with “refusing to bargain.”

As the board mulls the competing complaints, union organizers on the ground are stepping up their advertising. As Arevalo heads off to the Brookland-Catholic University Metro stop, Junge and three fellow SEIU organizers stand across the street, outside the university’s power plant. They’re here this Thursday to hand out union literature to custodians who come and go at the 2 p.m. shift change. Because the leafleters are conspicuous in their purple caps and matching purple jackets, they say it’s only a matter of time before campus security guards will arrive to escort them off campus.

SEIU representatives say they were escorted off campus four times during the last week of March—which led them to file another complaint with the NLRB in early April that charged the university with holding “captive audience meetings” with union workers after the transfer recommendation, “prohibiting union discussions on non-work areas,” and “conducting surveillance of employee protected activity by stationing security personnel to monitor peaceful leafleting by SEIU organizers.”

Today, however, the organizers are apparently being left alone. Junge uses the opportunity to explain to the workers coming off shifts that university janitors and maintenance workers earn 15 percent and 30 percent less than SEIU custodians at Gallaudet University and American University, respectively. Catholic University janitors are paid $6.80 to $7.80 an hour, or, assuming a 40-hour week, less than the 1999 federal poverty threshold of $17,028 for a family of four.

“That ain’t doin’ right,” says Mary Carroll, a janitor who has scrubbed tile for the university for nearly seven years. “I work seven days a week, and I don’t even make $80 a day. We’re treated like trash, like we ain’t nothin’. They do you any way they want here. Now they say we ain’t got a union. I never signed nothing saying I don’t have no union.”

Carroll glances over her shoulder at the power plant, where she and her fellow custodians clock in each day before work. Suspicion of university spies is running high among the custodial workers. Eight different janitors leaving the red-brick building confirm that their supervisors have quietly spread the word among the custodial staff that they could be fired for talking to union officials.

“You can’t talk back because they’ll cut your days,” Carroll complains. “I’m a woman, I’m black, and I like to work overtime—that’s why they’re picking on me.” Another janitor, Elaine Jones, says that after 12 years of cleaning university buildings, she still pays $46 every two weeks for individual health insurance. “It don’t make no sense,” she says.

With the legal battle ongoing, SEIU organizers are continuing efforts to meet with the workers in hopes that they will agree to the transfer if and when the NLRB allows Local 82 back on campus. If the labor board rules that the union was within its rights to transfer Local 14 members to Local 82, says Junge, then the SEIU can negotiate a contract—or get the workers to go on strike. If the union loses its argument, however, the janitors are left without representation.

Long believes that the SEIU will prevail and that the university will be forced to bargain with Local 82 on behalf of the workers. “Local 14, like Local 82, is a subsidiary of the SEIU,” she says. “We’re all under the same parent union. The relationship that the university had with the workers in the past has nothing to do with the fact that they’re breaking the law now. The workers have a right to have a union.” CP