Communication Workers of America local chapter president Kevin Kee advocates worker’s rights for more than 2,000 Ohio State employees. Credit: Jerrod Mogan

More than 5,000 workers spent more than 10 million total hours  maintaining the day-to-day functionality of Ohio State’s campuses in 2016, according to the university’s statistical summary webpage. Those who perform the work often go unnoticed by students and faculty.

Communications Workers of America Local 4501 — which represents over 2,000 Ohio State employees — has acted as the voice of these employees for more than three decades by using collective bargaining to negotiate and advocate on their behalf.

CWA Local 4501 President Kevin Kee said the labor union was formed at Ohio State in 1983 16 years after 1,500 workers walked off the job in protest of at-will employment and irregular pay schedules.

“They would go weeks without getting paid, and I mean weeks,” he said.

Former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste signed legislation authorizing collective bargaining by public employees. Shortly after, university employees voted to allow CWA to represent them and the Local 4501 was established to represent employees in contract negotiations, arbitration and to lobby for legislation.

“It’s always about working conditions and wages,” Kee said. “You have to have the interest of all 2,000 [workers].”

Though not all university laborers belong to the union, Kee said everyone benefits from its presence.

“[Employers] have to respond to the fact that there’s a union… and keep their wages up,” he said. “Otherwise, everyone runs to the union.”

The jobs workers do — from mowing lawns and mopping floors to installing new technology and ordering surgical supplies — make it possible for students to learn and professionals to perform the important work they do, Kee said.

“Nobody is going to come to a dirty hospital,” said Mericle Long, a lead chief union steward at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center. “Without our supply techs, no one is going to be able to get surgery … without your maintenance workers, your facility wouldn’t run.”

It can be hard for some people to realize the amount of work union workers do, because much of it goes unseen, she said.

“It’s difficult,”  Long said. “Especially when you’re serving such a large population.”

Recent Ohio State graduate and United Students Against Sweatshops member Nathalie Pagán said students rarely think about the jobs workers do.

“They don’t get to experience it, so they don’t really care about it,” she said.

The union expressed concern over a growing disconnect between workers and the community they serve.

“There’s a perception that we’re different,” Kee said, “and people are always trying to put wedges between us.”

Jed DeBruin, who advocated for union workers before graduating from Ohio State in May, said he saw the disconnect during his time on campus.

He said because of a stratified community, like campus, students might not appreciate employees’ work until the workers aren’t there to fix something.

Progress made by the labor movement — including the eight-hour workday, overtime pay and improved workplace safety — might be lost if the younger generation has a negative view of laborers, Kee said.

“We don’t want the clock rolled back on these issues,” Kee said. “[Students] are essential to what will happen to labor in the future.”  

The walls between workers and the rest of the Ohio State community can only be broken down with more communication, he said.

“The first thing we got to do is talk to each other,” Kee said. “By trying to understand one another, people will understand why someone might need a representative.”