Cleaning up the Hamptons


Corey Dolgon

 

On April 16, over 100 people
gathered to support the Coalition for Justice (CFJ), a group
formed by Southampton College (SC) custodians who were
recently "contracted out" to a private management
company. The coalition is demanding that College
administrators cancel the contract and restore custodians as
college employees.

Over two months ago, the SC
administration hired the Laro Management Company to
"take over" its union contract with custodians. The
workers were given one day notice of the change and were
forced to sign applications for jobs they already thought
they had. A coalition of students, faculty, staff, and
community members has organized to protest both the SC
administrations arrogance and Laro’s penchant for
union-busting practices. For the time being, however,
custodians wear Laro uniforms and name tags, have lost
seniority, tuition remission, and other benefits; have been
warned not to fraternize with students or other campus
employees, and, according to George Harney (a janitor at SC
for 28 years), feel "like dogs who have been kicked out
to the sidewalks."

In typical bureaucratic
"suitspeak," the SC provost claims that the
decision was "budget neutral"—the school
won’t save any money; it just wants to get "someone
who will drive you [the custodians] harder." Aside from
an obvious caveat, that getting more work for the same money
is not budget neutral, the real financial savings will come
when the current union contract is up in October 1998. At
that point, either Laro will force concessions based on their
extremely low profit margin (which they willingly accepted
only with the understanding that there would be money made
eventually) or the company will try to bust the union. If the
college decides to cancel the contract at that time, they
will have no obligation to maintain the union as custodians
will officially be Laro employees. In either case, the
college will make money and the custodians will lose out.

Custodians also argue that the
action has racial overtones. After all, of 17 custodians, 12
are people of color (mostly African American or Native
American) or recent immigrants—the only campus unit
comprised predominantly of minorities. No other union or
worker from the SC Physical Plant staff was "sold"
or fired and, while the college admits that the problem was
bad management, the managers have all retained their
positions with no reduction in salary or status. In fact, the
decision comes in the midst of union pressure from the
custodians to create a promotional pipeline to other levels
of employment in the Physical Plant department. In 30 years,
only two custodians have ever been promoted in the department
and not one of them was a person of color. There have only
been two people of color hired for positions above custodian.
As Bob Zellner, well-known civil rights activist and local
resident said at the April rally, "The college reminds
of Southern Plantation."

"The Hamptons" are
comprised of a dozen or so towns and villages at the eastern
end of Long Island and are world renowned as a vacation place
for the rich and famous of New York City. For years, the
city’s paparazzi have escaped the heat and grime of
urban summers to relax in their multi-million dollar homes on
the ocean beaches of the south shore of Long Island. However,
as New York City becomes an increasingly difficult place to
live year-round (poverty, fear of crime, urban blight, etc.),
more and more people have made the Hamptons a year round
residence. Helped by the advent of
"techno-commuting" innovations, there is a housing
boom for a maturing yuppie population that would like to
raise their new families in a "cleaner"
environment.

The local African American and
Native American populations have generally served in the
lower echelons of the service sector employment providing
domestic help, public and private maintenance work, and
"backroom" leisure industry labor as dishwashers,
launderers, etc. The growing migrant population of Latino
workers has filled in niches as landscape and nursery workers
at large estates and local vineyards, as well as the lowest
paid service sector employees in retail sales work at
department and food store chains like K-Mart and King Kullen.
The burgeoning need for a low-wage pool of service workers
has kept wages from falling too quickly as the number of
available workers remains low. Yet, management companies like
Laro that can bring in hundreds of unemployed workers
(victims of everything from deindustrialization to welfare
reform) from "up-island" in Western Suffolk and
Nassau counties promise to change these economic dynamics.
Thus, custodians are trying to impress upon the working
people of the Hamptons that their local struggle may be a
bellwether for future regional fights as the few decent
paying service sector jobs that remain may be in jeopardy if
people don’t stand up now to the forces of greed and
exploitation.

The Coalition for Justice has
appeared before the Southampton Anti-Bias Task Force which
has decided to investigate the issue. The coalition will also
be asking the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission to look
at the situation. In the meantime, CFJ continues a long
tradition of grassroots community and workplace activism by
applying direct pressure on the Administration to address
their concerns. The coalition has also become a site where
class and racial barriers are talked about openly, not as
asides to the main discussions, but as central to the
organizing and building of a coalition. The April
demonstration brought in dozens of new members who are
starting a letter-writing campaign to students’ parents
and a direct action and educational campaign to spread
information at all campus events. As one faculty member
explained, "the college has a mission statement that
calls on itself to build a caring and compassionate
community." This decision [to contract out custodians]
is a cold and calculated one, not caring and compassionate.
"To build a community we must join together to fight
such decisions."

Corey Dolgon is assistant
professor of American Studies at Long Island University.