News: Dirty Fight

Justice for Janitors faces challenges at Cincinnati State

Mark Bealer

Billy Embree, a student, was forced by security guards to leave the campus of Cincinnati State College when he distributed literature in support of janitors.

After receiving a warning from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU), Cincinnati State Technical and Community College is allowing the distribution of literature for the Justice for Janitors campaign.

On May 30 a Cincinnati State student, Billy Embree, and a representative of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Leslie Mendoza Kamstra, were distributing flyers for Justice for Janitors, a group trying to unionize workers in the contract cleaning industry. After handing out pamphlets for several minutes, they were approached by two campus security guards.

Embree and Kamstra say the guards told them that passing out leaflets was against the school's code of conduct. The guards allegedly threatened to call the Cincinnati Police Department and said the pair had to immediately leave the campus.

One of the guards threatened to file a complaint with the dean of students against Embree that could result in suspension or expulsion. In the end, the guards escorted Embree and Kamstra off campus and no charges were filed.

What process?
A week later the ACLU sent a letter to Cincinnati State President Ron Wright, notifying him of the organization's concerns about the apparent First Amendment violations at the college. The letter cited "repeated, successful attempts to deny students and/or union organizers the right to peacefully and non-intrusively distribute flyers" and "concerns faculty and staff (including janitors) are being intimidated against speaking out or otherwise showing support for Justice for Janitors."

The ACLU also claimed the organizers had encountered difficulties in attempting to hang flyers and reserve table space. Cincinnati State made no response to the ACLU but has started making bulletin board and table space available to Justice for Janitors organizers. Gary Daniels, litigation coordinator for the ACLU of Ohio, says the group has no plans to take action against the college but will "be interested if the problems continue to arise."

Michele Imhoff, spokeswoman for Cincinnati State, says the school did nothing wrong in removing Embree and Kamstra from the campus.

"The only reason they were asked to leave campus is because they didn't go through our college's official process," Imhoff says.

Imhoff says the pair were kicked off campus because they were in violation of up to four separate sections of Cincinnati State's Student Code of Conduct. The four sections referred to by Imhoff ban disruption of any authorized on-campus proceedings, "failure to comply with directions of college officials or law enforcement officers ... participation in a campus demonstration which disrupts the normal operations of the college, intentional obstruction which unreasonably interferes with freedom of movement" and "breach of peace."

The Code of Conduct mentions no process for gaining authorization from the college to distribute materials on campus.

Imhoff dismissed allegations that janitors are being kept from organizing at Cincinnati State.

"We have about 475 employees at the college, and about 400 are unionized," she says.

Janitors at Cincinnati State are represented by International Union of Operating Engineers Local 020, Inhoff says.

But that's misleading, to Kamstra.

"Cincinnati State has two different janitorial staffs — one that is in-house and unionized and the other that is EMS, which is not unionized," she says.

EMS is a private company with a contract for cleaning services at Cincinnati State.

"The EMS workers are not employees of the college," says Gene Bryer, director of human resources at Cincinnati State.

Justice for Janitors has been working for several years to unionize janitors for contract cleaning services. Most of the companies in Greater Cincinnati have now begun negotiating with SEIU, Kamstra says

"The majority of janitorial companies in Cincinnati have begun negotiating terms with their workers, except for two," she says.

EMS is one of the two holdouts, she says.

Charles Henry, an EMS janitor at Cincinnati State, says his co-workers have "mixed feelings" about SEIU and Justice for Janitors.

"The ones that have been there a while don't like the union," he says.

Henry didn't explain the hesitation about SEIU, but Kamstra believes she might have the answer.

"EMS has intimidated workers at Cincinnati State, telling them they can't join or talk to unions, and union members who've shown up on campus have been threatened with arrest," she claims.

Last month the National Labor Relations Board in Indianapolis issued a complaint saying EMS had "been interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees" against unionizing. A reporter's interview request to EMS' main office in Houston went unanswered.

Pamela Ecker, program chair of Cincinnati State's Multimedia Information Design Department and president of the college faculty's union, the American Association of University Professors, comes down on SEIU's side of the issue.

"I was aware of what I would call inappropriate measures in reference to faculty member's rights in helping out with Justice for Janitors," she says. "Some statements were made to faculty members about who they were allowed to talk to. People had to go through certain procedures in talking to Justice for Janitors."

Cincinnati State has addressed that issue, according to Ecker.

"Missteps in relations to faculty members and free speech have been corrected," she says.

But Ecker said her "understanding is that the statements made to students were just as misinformed as those to the faculty."

Imhoff dismisses Ecker's account.

"I cannot believe anybody would tell someone, especially a faculty member, who they could talk to," Imhoff says. "I think people are confusing the process with what people are saying." ©

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