The problems at Laura’s job began long before the pandemic. Custodial staff are among the lowest paid workers at the University of Arizona despite facing some of the harshest labor. The workload has taken a horrible toll on Laura’s health. She said before becoming a custodial worker at the university, she wouldn’t get as much as a headache. Now, “I’m constantly going to the doctor to get shots for the pain on my shoulders, my neck, my hips, my knees,” she said. Laura is in her 60s. “There’s women that I work with who’ve had a lot of surgeries. It’s mostly women doing the harsh labor and in charge [of cleaning] the big buildings.” Laura is a pseudonym. She agreed to talk to Prism anonymously for fear of retaliation. We can’t share many details, except that Laura is an immigrant from Latin America. Laura is one of dozens of custodial workers who may soon be able to join a newly established labor union at the University of Arizona as they fight to improve their working conditions.

The working environment worsened in March as coronavirus cases began to rise around the country, and things grew more difficult through the spring and summer with cases spiking locally in Tucson in July. Laura told Prism that at the start of the pandemic in March, her supervisors told custodial staff they should probably wear masks, but the university didn’t provide any until at least a couple of months into the pandemic. The University disputes this, however, stating that cleaning staff were provided full PPE beginning March 9. In-person classes were suspended in the spring. But not all students could return home, particularly out-of-state and international students; hundreds of students continued living at the university dorms, Laura said, with healthy students staying in two buildings and students who tested positive for COVID-19 being moved to one of three other buildings. Dozens of custodial workers, including Laura, were tasked with disinfecting the dorms. “We’d go floor by floor, about 20 workers on the same floor, in the same hall, sharing everything, cleaning and cleaning,” Laura said. This was in addition to her regular cleaning tasks.

“Workers knew that they were walking into a dangerous situation,” Laura said. There were several times when they would show up to clean dorms without personal protective gear only to be told that the dorms hadn’t even been disinfected, she said.

Laura has made $12 an hour since she was first hired, except for about a week early in the pandemic when she and others were paid time and a half for volunteering to clean dorms when students were consolidated into fewer buildings. Given the added risks and responsibilities, Laura and other custodial workers felt the raise should last at least for the duration of the pandemic, if not permanently, but it was discontinued. In fact, when the administration rolled out its initial furlough and pay cut proposal in April to cope with the financial setbacks triggered by the pandemic, custodial workers were told they would have to take 13 unpaid days off starting in June. “Us, the ones who make the least,” Laura said. Ultimately, however, furloughs for custodial workers were suspended.

Perhaps what disturbed Laura the most regarding the university’s handling of the pandemic was the alleged request that custodial workers “volunteer” to transport COVID-19 test tubes from campus to the nearby hospital. “They asked us to get driving certificates to drive golf carts [on campus] so we could transport [COVID-19 tests] to the university hospital,” Laura said. “How could that be possible? We are custodial workers. What if something happens?”

The working conditions for custodial staff is one of a myriad of issues at the University of Arizona that triggered the creation of the United Campus Workers Arizona. The union launched around Labor Day, after months of organizing against what hundreds of staff and faculty felt was a neglectful response to the coronavirus outbreak, excessive layoffs, pay cuts, and furloughs aimed at stemming a budget crisis triggered by the pandemic. The union currently has over 500 members.

For years, Arizona’s majority-Republican state legislature and a number of Republican governors have launched a war against public education and unions. Despite a wave of support for Democratic President-elect Joe Biden in this year’s election—largely thanks to the work of grassroots Native and Latinx advocacy groups—Arizona has historically been a conservative state. But that may be changing.  

“Collective action, we’re seeing that here at the [University of Arizona] in a way we have never seen it before,” said Celeste González de Bustamante, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a leading union member. “It’s also a reflection of a larger movement across the country of [university] staff, faculty and students saying this neoliberal [model] hasn’t worked and we need to change that.”

Arizona is a right-to-work state, which means the union doesn’t have collective bargaining rights. “We’re not gonna have union contracts with our employer, but we still have a lot of the power that goes along with building [a] union,” said Sandy Soto, associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona. The union is a branch of the United Campus Workers in conjunction with Communications Workers of America, which represents some 700,000 workers in the public and private sectors. “The pandemic pushed us to this point. We have to continue working on the most urgent issues …[student] reentry, furloughs, the classifying of janitorial staff as essential workers.” There’s also the issue of job security, Soto said. Laura said she and some of her colleagues are even afraid of calling in sick to work, fearing they could be laid off.

Before there was a union, hundreds of staff, faculty, and graduate students came together in April to form the Coalition for Academic Justice at the University of Arizona in response to the university’s furlough plan and lack of transparency in its efforts to gradually reopen during the pandemic. In less than three months, the coalition had over 500 members. One of their initial victories was pressuring University of Arizona President Robert Robbins and his administration to amend its pay cut plan, which led to the suspension of furloughs among university employees who make less than $44,500 a year—which includes custodial workers like Laura.

As of August, more than 280 employees had also been laid off or did not have their contracts renewed for this school year, according to the coalition. Anger against upper administrators mounted after news the University of Arizona had purchased Ashford University just as furloughs were underway in the same month. Ashford is an online, for-profit university that enrolls some 35,000 students and will be transformed into a nonprofit called the University of Arizona Global Campus. The endeavor reportedly cost $1 and the University of Arizona will get to retain nearly 20% of tuition costs. According to Inside Higher Ed, Global Campus is guaranteed $225 million in revenue over 15 years.

González de Bustamante said union and coalition members are demanding an independent audit to gain better clarity on the university’s finances and where money is being invested.

“We really want to make sure that this university does not become more privatized than it already is. Right now, we’re one of the worst states in terms of funding [but] our [university] president is among the highest paid. There is this disconnect … a lack of transparency and lack of inclusion in the planning and decision-making at the university,” González de Bustamante said. Robbins makes nearly $1 million a year. “We don’t actually know what the state of the financial situation is because … even after months and months of asking them for specifics, they have not made that [information] available.”

She said the university is prioritizing profits over public health concerns. In-person classes with 30 or fewer students began in October as the university is currently in its second phase of reopening. The university has roughly 46,000 students enrolled this academic year, and some 5,000 are projected to be attending classes on campus for the fall semester.

“We’re still seeing hundreds of cases a day in Arizona. Why would you bring students back when cases are increasing and knowing that Tucson is over 30% Latino, knowing that Latino communities are being disproportionately impacted by COVID?” González de Bustamante said, adding Native communities in Arizona have also been deeply impacted by the pandemic. “There is a lack of respect, a lack of recognition for where we are in Tucson … being on Tohono O’odham Nation.”

As the union is still in its initial stage, a lot of the work ahead will involve outreach among workers like Laura who are most vulnerable—especially during the pandemic. Laura said she’s excited about the union and for the possibility of change.

Her work has now tripled as some of her colleagues have either been fired or quit during the pandemic, she said. Those who made the hard decision to leave did so to protect their health. Laura’s husband lost his job during the pandemic, so her paycheck is the only one sustaining their household. She can’t leave.

Laura used to clean one building with a colleague. But this coworker retired early when COVID-19 case began to spike. Now it’s just Laura, cleaning every office, every classroom, every bathroom in a five-story-high structure.

“There is no consideration for us, no consideration for what we face,” she said.“Why are they treating us as if we’re not human beings?”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the University of Arizona’s COVID-19 protocols for students who continued to live on campus in the spring, and also misstated information about custodial workers’ pay. The errors have since been corrected, and the article has also been updated to clarify the timeline of the initial COVID-19 surge in Tucson.

María Inés Taracena is a contributing writer covering workers’ rights at Prism. Originally from Guatemala, she's currently a news producer at Democracy Now! in New York City focusing on Central America...