They were the first back on MU’s campus once it started reopening after a nearly two-month shutdown caused by COVID-19. Now, they’re concerned they could be the first to leave.


More than 100 laborers and their supporters protested the potential outsourcing and privatization of MU landscaping and custodial jobs due to COVID-19-related budget cuts at a protest on campus Saturday afternoon.


"The university is saying they want to outsource most of our jobs," said Carlos Escobar, a Laborers' Local 955 organizer. "They want to start with the landscaping department and … the custodial department. That’s around 300 people that will be out of work."


MU spokesman Christian Basi said around 280 MU employees could be impacted by the privatization and outsourcing efforts, which will be decided upon at the end of the month.


"We are under a significant budget strain right now," Basi said. "The system has had approximately more than $50 million cut from its budget for this year alone."


The university is hiding behind the COVID-19 crisis to justify the cuts, Escobar said.


"If they want to start cutting jobs, outsourcing jobs, they can also start from the top," he said.


Basi said the university is making cuts at every level of the UM system, for example, the athletics department will be requiring 10% cuts in pay for employees making more than $100,000/year and 7.5% cuts for employees making more than $60,000.


Demonstrators held signs that said "Outsource the Chancellor!" and "People are not essential one day and expendable the next" at the event, organized by Mid-Missouri DSA, CoMo for Progress, Missouri Jobs with Justice, Missouri Kansas Laborers' District Council and Laborers' Local 955.


Chanting "What’s disgusting? Labor busting!" and "No justice, no peace!", protesters walked from Traditions Plaza to the chancellor’s house on the quad, where Laborers' Local 955 representatives taped a sheet of paper outlining their demands to the front door.


They want the university to bargain in good faith with Laborers Local 955, cease all attempts to outsource/privatize custodial and landscaping services, and bargain all future cuts with the union.


Longtime MU employees rallied, including Herman Klippel, 58, who has worked in landscaping at the university for the past 40 years. He protested alongside his wife and son.


He is close to retirement, he and his wife can’t afford to lose the health benefits offered through his job at the university, he said.


"With me and my wife being on the same insurance, it'll just knock this out," he said. "We are both on some medication ... if we didn't have the insurance, we couldn’t afford it."


Klippel has a bad knee that will need surgery soon, and can’t foresee being able to find another position in the current job climate, he said.


"It'd be hard for an almost 59-year-old man to find something that will come up with enough money to ... keep our needs going as we go," he said.


Blanca Barraza has worked as a custodian at the university for the past 16 years. She has arthritis.


"I need my insurance because I need my specialist. I need my medicine," she said.


Her colleague Jacqueline Ramirez, who has worked as a custodian at the university for the past two years, said neither of them have received any word on whether their jobs will get cut, or if they will have to furlough. They were some of the first workers back after the campus reopened.


"Right now they just tell us we need to declare everything. So we are killing yourself to maybe lose the job," she said.


They know their positions have the potential to get cut, but haven’t heard from university administration about when they will know for sure, Ramirez said..


Others, like Randy Wallace, a custodian, echoed the same sentiment.


"We were one of the first respondents to come back in and do all the cleaning and do everything, you know, with no testing and … we are the first to go," he said. "I can understand if it was a business and they were going out of business and there weren’t going to be no more custodians. But they’re getting rid of us to get somebody else."


Wallace added that many of his colleagues would have liked to attend the event, but didn’t because they were concerned attending might cost them their jobs.


"It’s unfortunate that while the high administrators and now many more permanent employees are being asked to take temporary cuts in their pay, when you outsource jobs, that's permanent," said Paul Rainsberger, retired director and associate professor of the MU Labor Education Program.


"So I see this as a permanent solution for a temporary problem. That's not acceptable."


The Board of Curators will likely address next fiscal year’s budget at the June 18 meeting in Columbia. Tuition hasn’t been set for the upcoming school year as the university works to decide in which capacity it will hold in-person classes in the fall.


Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify Paul Rainsberger is now retired from the University of Missouri and not a current employee.