Custodial staff rallies for fairer pay at UNM

Workers from across the university join in solidarity calling for better treatment

By: - December 6, 2021 6:00 am

At a rally organized by the coalition of UNM unions, one custodial worker’s sign read: “17 years of service and I still earn just the minimum wage.” (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Hundreds of people lined up for hot chocolate and posole after students at the University of New Mexico decorated their campus with 13,000 luminarias, as they have for decades as part of the Hanging of the Greens.

The annual holiday event is billed by the university as “UNM’s oldest student-run tradition” meant to “unite the University of New Mexico campus every December.” And the student groups always clean up their own luminarias.

But a coalition of unions representing workers on the school’s five campuses across the state say beautiful traditions like these are tarnished by an ugly practice: UNM custodial workers help keep the campus running, while the school pays them the bare minimum.

Isela Sotelo, a custodial worker at UNM’s main campus in Albuquerque, works the morning shift from 4 a.m. to noon each day. She has done so for 15 years but has made close to minimum wage her entire career here.

“The prices of everything are going up. Gas, insurance — everything is going up. The cost of living is sky-high, and we’re still making the same minimum wage,” Sotelo said Friday, Dec. 3, through an interpreter.

A coalition of UNM workers from eight separate unions rallied Friday, Dec. 3 to demand an end to poverty wages. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

There are about 250 custodial workers who keep all of UNM’s campuses running, including student dorms and Johnson Center, which includes gyms and locker rooms. Communications Workers of America Local 7076 represents about 800 UNM workers in all.

This kind of labor is essential, said Susan Valentina, especially at the UNM Hospital, where many work. “There’s a saying around the hospital that if the doctors were gone, it would close in a day. If the nurses were gone, it would close in hours. And let me say right now that if our clerical and maintenance staff were gone, it would never open at all,” she said.

She was at the rally representing a 600-member committee for interns and residents at the hospital. She said her group is excited to join in support of other staff members to make sure management understands the hospital relies on their work and could not function without them.

Many of the members of her union, though, couldn’t make it to the rally because they are regularly required to go beyond the maximum 80 hours of work per week limited by their contract at the hospital — even on Friday nights.

“We know that if one of us suffers, all of us suffer,” she said. “And we know that by working together we can force management to listen and to change their ways.”

Custodial workers on campus have tried addressing the problem of poverty wages, Sotelo said. They’ve tried speaking with their bosses. They’ve tried bargaining. “But we haven’t gotten anywhere,” she said.

Rather than taking steps to help custodial workers during the pandemic, instead UNM administrators “have taken things away from us,” she said. There are fewer and fewer people to work, she said, leaving them to do more work than they did before.

“We’ve been working nonstop during this pandemic,” she said. “You come into work, and you feel anxiety with everything that’s going on.”

Despite feeling tired from work, Sotelo still showed up to march alongside hundreds of her fellow workers to the front of Popejoy Hall that night.

You have to have energy for the good. We need it. We need this raise, and we need to fight for it. There are folks here who have two or three jobs, who can’t make ends meet.

– Isela Sotelo

The march and rally included members from eight different unions representing graduate students, academic faculty, hospital workers, staff, custodians and many others. 

“I’m surprised and happy about how many people showed up tonight to support us,” Sotelo said. “It looks really good, it makes me feel really good, and we’re gonna keep fighting. And we hope that from this energy, something good comes from it. We’re thankful for all the support and all the help. We hope that UNM listens and sees that we have these needs.”

When custodial worker Sandra Hernandez first arrived at her job at UNM, another worker told her there wasn’t a union on campus. Speaking to throngs of rally-goers just feet from the crowd who had lined up for posole, she said, “Look around. There is a union of people at this university.”

“It doesn’t matter if you speak English or if you speak Spanish, our unity creates our strength, and we’re going to keep fighting,” she said. “Together, we are strong. Together, we are capable of everything. I believe that we are going to win this, because you look around here, and you can tell that we are going to build the power that we need to do it.”

UNM workers marched Friday, Dec. 3 from the Student Union Building to in front of Popejoy Hall, near the Hanging of the Greens ceremony. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)


A previous version of this story failed to say that student groups clean up the luminarias after the Hanging of the Greens. 

This story was updated to reflect the correct information on Wednesday, Dec. 8. We apologize for the error.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.