VIDEO: Denver Custodians Rehearse Resistance Onstage

Campus workers teamed up with a theater troupe to dramatize their organizing drive. They hope the play will boost student and faculty solidarity and encourage coworkers to overcome their fears. Video: Marty Otañez.

Campus workers, students, teachers, and community members gathered in a lecture hall turned workers’ theater at the Auraria Campus in Denver on November 10 to watch as campus custodians acted out stories of workplace abuse and their struggle for respect.

The Auraria Campus combines facilities for three universities and roughly 40,000 students, making it an economic powerhouse in downtown Denver. As the campus expands and the student population grows, custodians are under pressure to take on more work and shifting hours. They are organizing with Colorado WINS (Workers for Innovative and New Solutions), affiliated with AFSCME, the Teachers, and the Service Employees.

Faced with an increasingly hostile management, workers and union organizers are collaborating with the Romero Theater Troupe, an all-volunteer, community-based theatre collective that describes its work as “social justice through organic theatre.”

By sharing their stories publicly, workers hoped they would encourage others to come forward and tell their own stories, and the union ranks would grow. It is working already—three new members have joined the union in the month since the performance.

True Stories from Work

Over a three-month period, members of the Romero troupe worked closely with WINS organizers and eight workers to develop a short play that tells stories of workplace problems and the efforts to organize. Rehearsals took place biweekly at an SEIU hall in Denver, after the custodians’ regular union meetings.

During rehearsals, workers would recount stories from their workplace and members of Romero would suggest ways to dramatize them, with the workers adding further details so that each scene reflected reality.

For example, in one scene, a supervisor harassed a worker, forcing her to “finish her work” after she had already clocked out. After the scene was rehearsed a few times, workers who had witnessed it in real life began to talk about how powerless they felt seeing the injustice and not being able to intervene. They wanted to portray not only the hostility of the supervisor but also their own internal tension between wanting to support their co-worker and fear of retribution.

In both rehearsals and performance, the project served not only to share grievances with potential allies but also as a way for workers to feel their own power to take action. Custodians acted out each scene, playing themselves or fellow workers, while members of Romero played supervisors or students.

‘I’m Not Afraid Anymore’

The play included a montage of injuries workers have suffered on the job and the difficulty they faced in getting proper care. In one case a worker fell on the job—and, after trying in vain to call her supervisor, had to phone her son to come get her. Another worker had to pay for her own cab to the hospital.

Custodians portrayed being told to clean backed-up toilets without the proper equipment, and managers’ refusing to translate important documents, knowing full well that some workers don’t read English.

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Each scene was introduced by a worker who had a direct tie to the issues, and in some cases the introductions became important scenes in themselves.

In one speech, Manuel, a veteran worker/organizer, told how he was the first person to join the union, and one of only three members for nearly four years. Many workers were too afraid of losing their jobs. That has changed in the past year, Manuel said—partly thanks to a particularly hostile manager he jokingly suggested must have been sent to help with the organizing.

One of the major grievances shared in the play was how management changed custodians’ hours without consulting them. The new shift ends after public transportation in Denver stops for the night. It also puts the custodians’ work in conflict with night classes at the colleges, meaning they sometimes cannot access the rooms they need to clean.

The shift change is bad for workers with families, who have less time to spend with their children. In the play, as in real life, when workers attempted to raise these concerns in staff meetings, managers told them, “It’s not our problem.”

Though many workers had experienced individual harassment and neglect from supervisors before, it was the change in hours, which included a 7 percent pay cut, that revealed management’s complete indifference and pushed more workers to the point of organizing. Mary, who was initially reluctant to join the union for fear of losing her job, said repeatedly throughout rehearsals, “I’m not afraid anymore.”

Network of Solidarity

The performance seems to have gotten management’s attention. Workers report that supervisors made comments about the show, though none were visibly in attendance.

The project also fostered support among students and teachers. Three student groups distributed fliers for the show, and sympathetic professors urged their students to attend. Workers have reported being treated with greater respect by students since the performance. “The campus is buzzing with knowledge about the custodians’ struggle,” said Jim Walsh, professor of history at UC Denver and founder of the Romero Troupe.

As the semester winds down, organizers, including Colorado Jobs with Justice, are planning a strategy meeting among members of the growing solidarity network that has emerged around the play. Workers report that there is still a lot of pressure from management, but as Fabiana said recently to a room full of Romero Troupe members and community supporters, “We know now if we need you, you’ll be there.”

Brian Pickett writes about labor, education, and theater. He is a member of the Romero Troupe and was involved in the rehearsals for this project.