It may be Labor Day in the USA but not for the `un-worthy’ cleaners

Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom mural on the United Electrical Workers building, Chicago, Illinois

It’s Labor Day weekend in the United States, and I’ve been thinking of the names, words, and voices that are consistently dropped out of the public accounts of workers and of labor. They’re stories that are deemed not worth telling or selling. Who decides the value of a story or the worth of a person or a people? Who decides something or someone is beyond worthless, beyond unworthy, is actually filled with un-worth? Consider two stories, from this weekend, that concern cleaners, and how their gender is `of no consequence’.

One involves cleaners at the University of the Free State, in South Africa, the other involves cleaners at GEICO headquarters, in suburban Washington, DC, in the U.S.

In February 2008, four white students at the University of the Free State made a horrible video. According to one report, “The video depicts four white male students taking four black, elderly, female workers and making them down a bottle of beer, run a race, play rugby and then kneel and eat meat which had been urinated on”. According to other reports, it was five Black elder workers, four women and one man.

Whatever the number, the workers were Black, overwhelmingly women, and elders. The media consensus? Racism. This was simply a matter of racism. Why? Perhaps because the students themselves said the video was in protest of racial integration of the residences. Perhaps.

Over this weekend, a full eighteen months later, the South African Sunday Times reports those cleaners, “four elderly female cleaners” are now “still being taunted”, by students, and are still haunted every time they don their cleaner uniforms. They have asked, since February 2008 when the film was made and circulated, for the University to change their uniforms. As of yet, nothing has changed, in either outfit or culture.

The report never deigns to quote any of the cleaners, instead opting only for the words of minister of higher education Blade Nzimande. And so the video remains simply racist. Gender matters not, elder status matters not. These topics are un-worthy.

I’ve been thinking about the names, words and voices of women workers, and in particular cleaners, because of an incident in Washington, DC. “12 union workers” lost their jobs recently when GEICO, the insurance giant, changed cleaners, and in so doing, moved from a unionized company to a non-union company. Service Employees International Union, SEIU, local 32BJ represents `property service workers’, and is staging protests. Washington Business Journal reports on the situation, without any names, other than those of corporations and union locals. Local National Public radio station WAMU reports on the protest, and interviews union district chair Jaime Contreras and company senior vice president Don Lyons. No workers. Radio América interviewed Jaime Contreras, who spoke, compellingly, of the workers’ situation. The television network, Univision, also ran a piece. They interviewed Dima Diaz, of SEIU, and Jose Rafael Cabrera, a dismissed worker. They tried to interview company boss Derek Miller, but no luck.

If you watch the Univision piece, you might notice that the majority of union activists and workers in the piece are women. Where are they in the reports? I am not saying the SEIU or the news media conspired to keep them out. But they did keep them out. It would be surprising if a crew of 17 cleaners was exclusively men workers. In fact, it would be shocking.

I understand that workers, women or men, may not want to have their names shared, might have reasons, many reasons, to protect their anonymity. But their words? As long as women workers, and in particular women workers of color, are kept out of reports of their own struggles, they will be continue to be considered un-worthy of attention, respect or recognition. Those women workers, those cleaners, have names, words, voices.

(Photo Credit: Harvard College Women’s Center)