We were plagued by constant turnover among management. Not because we liked our managers, but because it produced a feeling of nervous dread or fear of change for the worse. Mid and upper level management positions in the public sector resemble feudal domains, with aristocrats zealously defending their petty fiefdom and acting like despots over their subjects. This is especially true in states where public employee collective bargaining is not legally recognized (or North Carolina, where it’s explicitly illegal).
There are 2.3 million +/- custodial workers in the United States. Low wages, lack of comprehensive benefits and zero training opportunities are the norm for the overwhelming majority of us. Generally, when people hear you work in the facilities management-building services industry, they express their sympathies.
“The work must be awful…”
The work can be awful, but it isn’t the worst aspect of the job. On the customer service side, it often means being treated like a domestic servant. Everyone is your boss. On the management side, your job assignments, hours and working conditions are determined solely by the passing mood of your department’s leaders.
A while ago, we had just gone through another managerial turnover, the third in as many years. The new manager wanted to get acquainted with the department and personnel, and so became involved in day to day supervision. One day she asked me to train another worker. It involved training this other worker, who was 7-ish months pregnant at the time, in the use of a high pressure-power washer. It was to be used to clean a windowless locker room (i.e. enclosed space) with disinfectant. The disinfectant carried a bold warning on its Safety Data Sheet:
May Cause Birth Defects
This coupled with the chemical manufacturer’s instructions that it not be used in an enclosed space or with any kind of dispersal machinery without extensive Personal Protective Equipment—like a fitted respirator—led me to object to this whole idea. My new boss thought about it for a second and said, “Can’t you just tell her to be careful?”
Turnover at the management level included turnover at the supervisory level as well. New managers liked to kick out the existing supervisors and select their own. One such supervisor was a white woman who immediately sought to fill all vacant custodial positions. At that time, there were 3 openings on a shift of 12 custodial workers. Most of the workers on that shift were black and each had an average of 25 years seniority. The vacancies had been the result of 3 retirements, each of the retirees leaving with over 30 years’ seniority apiece.
All three vacancies were filled with white new hires. These personnel changes occurred right before summer. Due to the age of many of the buildings being cleaned, they lacked air conditioning. Not coincidentally, the three new hires were put in the newest buildings with central air. Summer is also the time that big facilities management projects are undertaken, including by custodial workers. This involves working in small groups with other custodial workers.
One of the new hires decided to take several unscheduled breaks. When tensions flared over one of these unscheduled breaks, the new hire in question called the supervisor on the phone and explained that her co-workers were trying to tell her what to do. After a few moments the new hire hung up the phone and ordered the senior workers to, “get back to work.”
Immediately after this the senior workers went to find the supervisor and confront her about this situation. When they found her, the supervisor tore into them. “You don’t have the right to tell other employees what to do, and I told her to tell you to get back to work, which obviously you didn’t do since you’re over here talking to me.”
For my black co-workers, not only does every member of the public get to act like their boss, but it was made clear under this supervisor’s regime that every white employee is their boss. Thankfully this supervisor didn’t last very long, but it was long enough. Her new hires have since found other patrons in the department. 2 out of the 3 have been promoted.
Most traditional workplaces try to promote an image of their employees as members of a team, a family, an integral part of the business. Most employers develop orientation programs and materials, like Wal-Mart playing those beat up VHS tapes of Sam Walton’s BS sermon about the Wal-Mart Way and whatnot for its new employees. It’s all obviously superficial, but it’s an attempt to maintain some kind of credibility for the exploitation going on inside their 4 walls and beyond.
Only a minority of jobs explicitly let you know that as long as you’re on the clock, you’re disposable and will be treated accordingly. Custodian is one of them.