A trio of 802 members played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at a Feb. 24 rally, while an actor portraying Abraham Lincoln told a cheering crowd that Cooper Union is exploiting its building cleaners. Meanwhile, Cooper Union officials were inside the university’s Great Hall – commemorating the 1860 anti-slavery speech there that established Lincoln as a national political figure.
About 60 members of Service Employees Local 32B-32J, the janitors’ union, rallied in Cooper Square as “Lincoln” (portrayed by Actors’ Equity member Arthur French) blasted Cooper Union for embracing Lincoln’s legacy while mistreating its building service workers.
Last year, Cooper Union’s building service workers protested the university’s subcontracting of cleaning services to Golden Mark Maintenance, a nonunion firm that pays poverty wages to mostly immigrant building service workers around the area. Cooper Union got rid of Golden Mark, but it retained a different nonunion contractor that also pays below industry standard and has fired two union supporters.
“Years ago, I came here to talk about the Union – the union of states that make up this great nation,” proclaimed “Lincoln.” “Today I’ve come back to talk about another union – a union of building service employees – and about our battle to ensure that everyone in our industry works for a responsible contractor who pays prevailing wages and benefits and has the protection of a union contract.”
After the speech demonstrators marched to two of the Cooper Union buildings they clean, singing and chanting along the way. “We felt great contributing to the cause of justice for Cooper Union’s janitors,” said 802 Executive Board member Bill Crow, whose tuba (along with Alan Cary’s banjo and Leo Ball’s trumpet) enlivened the event.
The rally got through to Cooper Union administrators, said 32B-J staffer Sarah Foudy. She told Allegro that senior university officials have agreed to meet with the union, suggesting that they were troubled by the negative publicity. “We’re hoping that Cooper Union is seriously considering doing the right thing and hiring a responsible contractor,” she said.