Amazing Story from How a Union (UAW Local 2300) Started at Cornell University

Editor’s Note: The following interview of Sue Heisey Compton, a founder back in the early 1980s of a union at Cornell University that represents over 1,100 building maintenance and service workers. The interview was conducted by Joan Lockwood, staff person with Local 2300, several months ago. Compton unfortunately passed away this past October 17th, 2014. However, we are incredibly blessed with this glimpse, from Sue’s perspective, into the inspirational history of why a union made so much sense to this union sister!

Did you know, for instance, that now no one working at Cornell and represented by the UAW makes less than $14.51/hour? Be it food service, the Statler, or grounds crews: what people might expect to make in the larger community of not much more than a minimum wage, at Cornell because of the union, is dramatically more!

Meet a Member: Sue Heisey Compton

Sue holds the honor of being the first woman from Grounds to step up and support the effort to bring a union to Cornell in the early 1980s. Her name is listed on the Charter of UAW Local 2300.

What was the moment when you knew you had to get involved? What convinced you, personally and professionally? What did you do?

I was not at Cornell for very long when I heard the grounds workers talking about getting a union to represent them mostly for reasons of retirement, sick leave policies and respect than anything else. I was so new and as the first ever female Groundsman I was trying to get the men to trust that I could and would do the same jobs that they were asked to do. I didn’t want to be treated like anything other than a fellow worker. I knew that I could do any of the work that the smaller men could do.

They had contacted the Meat Cutters Union and had a hearing already scheduled at the NLRB. I signed the card and actually testified at the hearing while I was still a probationary employee. They asked me on the stand if I was a permanent employee and I said I hadn’t been told yet either way. My boss at that time, Ed Kabelac, the Superintendent of Grounds, was asked and he said that yes, Sue Heisey, was now a permanent employee.

I had tried to get work for the 3 years previous and all I wanted was to have a chance to prove I could do the work. I had worked on a farm; I bought and sold produce; I mowed lawns; I cut, split and delivered firewood and I tended bar at Tweitmann’s Halfway House. And I applied for so many other jobs.

The meat cutters union had achieved one good thing even though they didn’t ultimately get to represent us. The NLRB declared that the bargaining unit should be the Service and Maintenance Workers. I think the UAW, who were already trying to organize on campus, wanted to have all of the non-exempt employees as the bargaining unit but they worked with the NLRB’s ruling.

My job as well as the others groundsworkers on the landscaping type of crews worked all over our designated area. Our area included all of the lawns, shrubs, sidewalks, flower gardens on the endowed part of the campus. I was mostly around the Arts Quad, Day Hall, along East Ave, etc.

I began hearing from some of the custodians about the UAW and what they were trying to do for themselves. Every area of the service and maintenance group had their individual problems. They had supervisors who were disliked and played favorites. Basically pay and raises were all based on the merit system. It sounds good on the surface – if you do a good job you’ll get good performance appraisals and good raises. But it doesn’t really work that way. What happens is the bosses favorites get good raises and the rest of them don’t. If the department is given a certain amount of money to give raises to employees it seldom was given out evenly.

If a boss didn’t like you, you might not get any raise at all that year. And there was nothing you could do about it or any other complaint. If you were having a real problem with another person there was no real grievance procedure. And if you were being unfairly treated by your boss you had no way of resolving the issues.

The retirement system for the endowed campus was so very terrible. It was based upon the amount of your Social Security payment upon your retirement. It was supposed to give you enough money to bring you up to living wage. Most of us had no real idea of how it was determined. It was a mystery that was eminently unfair and arbitrary. One of the retired custodians was paid with a check for less than $1.00 each month. She didn’t even cash them they were such an insult. The university sent her letter after letter telling her she needed to cash those checks because they were messing up the university accounts. She just kept right on stacking them up and putting them away. There was no other way she could protest this insult after her years and years of faithful service as a custodian.

The exempt employees (the bosses) and the faculty all had TIAA CREF for their retirement. They didn’t see why the non-exempt employees (all the rest of us who actually did all the work) were upset. Again, there was nothing we could do, there was no grievance structure that we could use. If we complained either individually or as a group, they would find an excuse for getting rid of the ring leaders and/or separating the group.

I was so fortunate in having the job that I had. I worked on the grounds crew. It had always been a man’s job and of course men had to make more money because they had families to support. We had higher starting pay grades than most of the other kinds of workers and so we were paid more. I started out as a GR18. The beginning rate for custodians was GR16 and for dining workers is was GR14. All of those pay grades were lower than what my starting wage was. The only reason I was hired into the grounds crew was because I was tall and relatively strong and had worked outside but mostly I was hired because of Affirmative Action. I was hired at the same time as Fred Woodland, an African-American, also hired because of Affirmative Action.

I can remember helping to shovel snow in front of Day Hall one day and have Jim Kidney, the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, put his arm around my shoulders and said to one of the other management men with him, “Look! We even have girls working on the grounds!” I was 36 years old and the mother of 2 teenage kids. I was a woman. I think that incident brought home to me the way all of the real workers were looked at and treated by the university. We were boys and girls and if we were good boys and girls were we treated nicely and if we weren’t we didn’t get the candy or our allowances. It was so demeaning. My skin just crawled every time I thought of that; it still does.

At that point I started doing every thing the union asked me to do to help us be treated like men and women who deserved respect for us as people and for the work we did every day to keep the university operating smoothly.

Quote from 1991: “For the longest time in my life I was saying please just give me a chance – let me try. The UAW came along and I found myself dragging my heels. The union was saying, “Come on, Sue!” So I did. I tried things…learned things I’ve never done before. I found self-respect and self-esteem. I’ll always be grateful to the union if for nothing other than that. They gave me a chance.” Sue Heisey Compton

Cornell was a strong adversary that made it clear it opposed a union for service and maintenance people (as well as technical and clerical employees). How did you do it? What were the winning strategies and arguments?

We did so many things during that organizing campaign. We wanted to get people’s attention. We needed people to hear what we had to say and the first thing we had to do was to get their attention. We could talk all we wanted but if they weren’t listening it did no good. So we published the Bear Facts newspaper and printed facts about Cornell University that most people had never heard. We had a weekly radio program with many of us talking about our experiences at Cornell. The best of the radio programs was when Perry Huested was on as “The Naked Bear” He was so good at that and was effective in so many other ways.

Doing a radio program was something I had never thought I could do but there I was time and time again. In the same way I became part of “The Singing Bears”. I have always loved to sing but I didn’t know any of the union songs. They said you can do this and sure enough there I was singing songs of social protest.

We had so much help from many other people who were not members of the union or the unit. There were clerical workers and technicians. There were faculty members and people from the community. We had the sympathy of many of the supervisors also but they couldn’t say anything publicly for fear of losing their jobs.

It took so much courage on the part of so many people to accomplish that herculean task.

One of the things that is seldom talked about were the mandatory meetings that the university
held for all the individual work units. They were conducted by men from personnel and men who were hired specialists from Union busting law firms. They lectured us on the evils of unions and the terrible things that would happen to us if we voted in a union. They used some real scare tactics. It was strongly implied that we would lose our jobs if we voted a union in and if we went on strike.

There were so many courageous people who would stand up in those meetings and argue with those union busters. Those men could pick apart anything we said; they were lawyers and very successful at busting unions. We all knew that if we didn’t get the UAW voted in our jobs were in jeopardy. These were the leaders who would probably lose their jobs or at the very least never get a raise or promotion again. But they kept on fighting for what they believed in.


Quote from 1991 on the election: “We knew the union was voted in…someone starting humming Solidarity Forever – it was one of the most exciting things that ever happened in my life. But it wasn’t over. There was a long, hard fight for the first contract…Cornell would sit down…but they wouldn’t talk to us. We did finally get a contract – and it’s been improving all along.” Sue Heisey Compton, Former Groundsworker

Strike – October 1981!
I can picture in my mind the people who manned the picket lines. There were men and women of all ages who were out there trying to stop tractor-trailers from crossing the lines.

The UAW gave us so much help. When the men and women came from Detroit, even Doug Fraser, the president of the UAW at the time, who were used to picketing one or two entrances to a plant or business, were amazed at the number of entrances to campus that we were trying to cover with so few people. Sometimes there would be one or two women in their 50s or even 60s walking back and forth across a road or street in the pouring rain, but they did it!

They did it not just for themselves but for their brothers and sisters who were out there walking another line and even for those who didn’t believe that having a union was necessary.

We finally forced the huge university which placed so much value on the degrees a person had attained, to look at the value of the people who did the drudgery and absolutely essential work of keeping the buildings, the grounds, the animals, the classrooms, the residence rooms for undergraduates and the apartments for graduates’ families clean and running smoothly.

But most of all, the people who fed all of them their meals every day. The wages the Dining workers were being paid were so low in some cases that long-term men or women with full-time jobs were eligible for Food Stamps and Medicaid.

The retirement income that the long-term employees (those with 25, 30, or more years of service) received when they retired was so low, in the case of the Endowed employees, that many of them were being paid less than $5.00/month to supplement their Social Security. And their Social Security was also very low because the wages they earned while they were working were so incredibly poor.

It was necessary and it was essential. I am sure there are people now, many of them current employees who have no idea what we went through to ensure that they are treated now like men and women  not as children who were patted on the head and told, “Good job, little boy. Now don’t bother me with how much money you are getting. You can always work somewhere else.”

What was true then and is still true today is that Ithaca is in many ways a single employer town. Cornell is so huge and the town is not that big that there weren’t other jobs for people to get. There were people who traveled long distances to work at Cornell. Some employees came from as far away as Syracuse and Sayre who traveled 50 or more miles every day back and forth to work.