Patricia Thomas has cleaned patient bed linens and employee uniforms for nearly three decades at Consolidated Laundry, a Rainier Valley facility which serves University of Washington hospitals and clinics. Laundry cleaning has been the Seattle native’s life’s work, and although she’s satisfied with it, Thomas admits that it’s precluded her from gaining the technical skills needed to excel in other sectors. “It’s hard to find other jobs if you don’t really have a skill,” she said as she stood with her fellow labor protesters in the UW campus courtyard late Wednesday afternoon, gray clouds clustering overhead. “I’m not that good at computer, you know.” Her dark dreads mottled with gray rested on a green T-shirt bearing the words “Council 28 AFSCME” (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a union that represents state employees).
Thomas never considered getting another job until she returned to her work station in January after a week-long vacation. In the midst of folding clothes, a colleague told her that UW was considering closing the Consolidated Laundry. Citing a $75 million budget shortfall throughout UW Medicine’s operations, the University is considering privatizing its laundry services.
Thomas was in total shock. “I didn’t think they’re ever going to close this laundry down, [not] in a hundred years.” Thomas had planned on retiring in four years, but she said she’ll have to find another part-time job and push off retirement if the facility closes. Although Thomas doesn’t support any dependents, her paycheck covers her rent, car payments, and credit card bills, and she fears she’ll fall behind if she loses her job. “We shouldn’t have to start all over again,” Thomas lamented. “It’s really sad.”
Most of the facility’s workers are middle-aged, immigrants or people of color who rely on the job for its $15 minimum wages, health care, and retirement benefits. “The privatization of this facility risks over 100 good-paying union jobs with members whose families directly rely on that employment,” said Rod Palmquist, the Higher Education Coordinator for the Washington Federation of State Employees.
Under the state’s civil service law, the employees can offer the University alternatives to contracting out the laundry services, which the agency will have to consider before requesting bids from private contractors. However, it’s very uncommon for employee business units to start in Washington state, said Palmquist. So over the past couple of months, Thomas and her co-workers have met at each other’s houses to brainstorm ways that they can keep the facility open. Union members and their supporters also gave testimony during the public comments section of a Feb. 26 King County Council meeting to protest the facility’s closure.
Over 100 UW Laundry Workers, student members of UW United Students Against Sweatshops, other union member supporters, and political groups gathered at the Drumheller Fountain on UW’s Seattle campus on Wednesday to protest the facility’s closure and to deliver over 600 petition signatures to UW President Ana Mari Cauce.
As students rushed past to attend their classes, workers and their supporters took turns speaking through a megaphone, voicing their concerns about the Rainier Valley facility’s closure. Consolidated Laundry worker Sewalem Gebre stood in front of a banner billowing in the wind that read “Huskies (heart) Our Workers/ Keep Consolidated Laundry Open” in painted green and blue letters. The facility has provided her with a steady paycheck that has helped her pay her mortgage and support her three young children over the past 12 years. “It’s not fair … to give away our jobs,” Gebre said as people cheered. “They don’t care about people, they care about money.”
Others complained that the laundry facility’s possible closure was the University’s attempt to undercut union jobs. Some feared that the workers could soon become homeless, which isn’t such a far-fetched idea. According to All Home’s annual point-in-time count released last may, the homeless rate countywide increased to over 11,600 people in January 2017.
The workers were also joined by Monica Cortes Viharo, a UW doctoral candidate in the School of Drama and executive board member of UAW Local 4121, the union that represents academic student employees. UAW is working to unionize postdoctorals at UW, and are currently bargaining their own contract with the University. “Hearing this just reminds us that this is once again, another example of the way the University puts price before their values,” Viharo said. “I just want to remind everybody that these things can work. If we work together, we can succeed.”
To that point, in 2014 AFSCME Council 28 and Service Employees International Union rallied to prevent the closure of four critical care clinics at Harborview Medical Center. The workers were successful in 2016, when the university and county announced a 10-year contract that would keep the critical care clinics open.
In the University’s eyes, the closure of the laundry facility is past due. “We value the work of our loyal staff and are carefully reviewing all of our options for the Consolidated Laundry. Our thirty-year-old facility is no longer state-of-the-art and would require significant capital costs to bring it up to current standards. UW Medicine management intends to solicit bids from other market suppliers through a Request for Proposals, which will be tendered on May 16. The results of the RFP process will help inform our leadership as we make final decisions by providing contemporary data on prevailing market conditions. In the interim, we are keeping our employees and their union representatives apprised of all developments,” Tina Mankowski, a spokesperson for UW Medicine, wrote Seattle Weekly in an email.
Yet, the laundry workers are adamant about doing everything in their power to keep the facility open. After Wednesday’s rally, the workers and their supporters marched through the campus and up the Gerberding Hall stairs, chanting “When worker’s rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back!”
The workers filled the university president’s office, and handed UW Chief Strategy Officer Margaret Shepherd a brown file filled with the petition signatures requesting that the facility stay open. Union members complained of a lack of transparency in UW’s process, and asked that university staff meet with the workers at the facility prior to requesting bids. Once Shepherd agreed to relay the message, the workers gathered outside to take a group photo with raised fists. They flashed toothy grins like they were at a family reunion, because as Thomas said, “We’re like family.”
UPDATE (Fri, March 30 at 5:30 p.m.): The day after the rally, UW Medicine issued 60-day layoff notices to 15 unionized employees at Consolidated Laundry. AFSCME Council 28 is planning on engaging with UW stakeholders and elected officials to fight the proposed layoffs. According to a layoff letter that the union sent to Seattle Weekly, one of the members will complete the final shift on May 31.