HATTIESBURG — Janice Jones scanned the growing crowd, her brown eyes squinting in the bright sun. 

About 30 people, some wearing red t-shirts and holding signs, were gathering at a fountain near University of Southern Mississippi’s Danforth Chapel for a protest. The group planned to march to President Rodney Bennett’s office and deliver more than 250 pledge cards calling on him to raise the university’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

All week, Jones and her fellow custodians had talked about attending. Custodians she didn’t know had stopped her in the hall to ask if she was going. But now it was fifteen minutes past four, the rally was set to start, and only one of Jones’ coworkers had shown up. 

“Most of them are Black,” she said. “I’m looking, and I’m like, where are all the Black faces?” 

Jones has worked as a custodian at USM for about three years. She hadn’t intended to stay for long until a car accident at the start of the pandemic left her scrambling to save for knee surgery. These days, she clocks in just before 5 a.m. for her shift, cleaning toilets, sanitizing desks and door handles, and sweeping sunflower seeds from between seats in the M.M. Roberts Stadium. For that work, Jones makes about $10 an hour, the lowest wage on campus. 

Shortly before her car accident, Jones learned about a group called United Campus Workers (UCW). The labor union, an affiliate of Communication Workers of America, was looking for custodians to join its “Fight for $15” campaign, and she quickly got involved in the chapter. But the pandemic made it difficult to organize. As USM went “back to normal,” turnover increased. Jones said it felt like the workload tripled. USM started bussing Jones and the remaining custodians around campus, often requiring them to work “mandatory overtime” at 1.5 times their typical hourly pay.

Then in January, Bennett, who made history when he became USM’s first Black president eight years ago, announced his intent to step down in 2023. Jones and other members of UCW spotted an opportunity. One of Bennett’s first acts as president had been to establish the $10 minimum wage on campus — UCW thought maybe that could be one of Bennett’s last acts too. So about a month ago, UCW members got together and voted to hold a protest the first week of May. 

In front of the fountain, Jones tried to put her coworkers out of her mind as Samuel Ewing, another UCW member, climbed onto a concrete hedge to start the rally. Through a megaphone, Ewing told the crowd that he was one of the many workers on campus who made far less than $10 an hour. As an adjunct professor, he had taught four classes this past year and made just $12,000. 

UCW’s campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, he said, would benefit “a broad swath” of workers on campus. 

“I’m talking custodial, janitorial workers, these are library workers, administrators — the people who run this university, who make this place what it is,” he said. “If we want to be a place that’s welcoming to students, that’s supporting the students, we’ve got to support the people who make this university work.” 

“The university is going to raise the wage,” Ewing continued, “but they’re only gonna do it if we demand it. They’re only gonna do it if we show them that we want it, that we deserve it, that we need it, and that we’re gonna build a healthy community.” 

“Yes, yes!” Jones said, nodding her head. 

It was February 2020, and Jones was taking her 12 o’clock break outside the liberal arts building when a tall, white man with long hair approached her. His name was John Jester, he said, and he was an organizer with United Campus Workers. Did she have some time to talk about the union? 

UCW organizer John Jester (right), Janice Jones (center), and J. Theresa Bush (left) head to the office of USM president Rodney Bennett, to deliver a list of supporters calling for a living wage during a rally at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Thursday, May 4, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

As Jones smoked a cigarette, Jester started his spiel. UCW got its start in 2000, he said, when a group of faculty, student workers and community members at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, voted to form a “wall-to-wall” union that any employee could join. Now, amid a national wave of unionization, UCW was on a mission to organize higher education in the South — a difficult task in Mississippi, considering state law bans public employees from going on strike. 

“We’re not trying to go for an election,” Jester said. “It’s really about bringing all the different constituencies around campus together — faculty, tenured and non-tenured, grad staff, facilities and maintenance — and just identifying the issues that need to be changed.” 

If Jester wanted custodians to join UCW, Jones said there were a lot of places he could start.For one, custodians needed a significant raise. Most took on extra jobs to make ends meet; at the time, Jones was working for a temp agency. 

Another issue, Jones said, was the attendance-based point system used by the Physical Plant, the department that oversees custodians. Per the policy, custodians can accrue points for missing a shift, clocking in late, or leaving early — accumulating 10 points can result in dismissal. The policy was intended to curb excessive absences, but Jones said she felt like it was regularly misused. She said she was one of many custodians who were given points even after providing human resources with a doctor’s note. 

About a month later, the pandemic hit Mississippi. Jones was driving a van for her second job when she got into an accident and tore a ligament in her right knee. She requested accommodations at USM, butthe best the school could do was limit the time she spent cleaning stairs. To this day, Jones wears a blue brace because she is still saving to pay for surgery.

“They explained there’s no such thing as ‘light duty’ out here,” she said. “You either can do the job or you can’t.” 

Jones gave Jester her phone number that day in February 2020. Over the course of the next year, she regularly joined him outside the gate of the Physical Plant to talk to her coworkers about unionizing. 

When Jones talked to coworkers about the union, she tried to explain it through her personal experience. In the 1960s, when she was growing up in Hattiesburg, her dad had been a member of the union at the now-closed Hercules chemical plant. He was one of the first Black employees there. Jones, who described herself as a “nosy child,” said she would bug her dad to explain why he was “always talking about ‘the union.’” She later learned a union steward had helped her parents access credit that allowed them to buy their home, a small three-bedroom in an all-white neighborhood. 

“He would explain to us that when you have a union, you have a group of people that are gonna be there for you,” she said. “Some companies, they’re in control of everything — whatever they say or decide, it’s entirely up to them. When you have a union rep, you’ve got somebody that’s gonna fight for you.” 

Some of Jones’ co-workers responded to her stories enthusiastically and they too started passing out fliers. But others were wary. They’d sign pledge cards but never show up to meetings. Once, Jones said that several coworkers she’d invited to an off-campus UCW meeting left when they couldn’t find parking at the restaurant. 

In Mississippi, which has long had one of the lowest rates of union membership in the country, Jones knew that organizing was a fraught and unfamiliar subject for many people. But she hadn’t realized exactly how scared her coworkers were of losing their job — not the money, but some of its crucial benefits, like access to the state of Mississippi’s retirement plan and discounted tuition for their kids. 

It also seemed to Jones like custodians were being warned not to speak out. During summer 2021, Jones and Jester were leafleting outside the gate when a police car pulled up. The officers told Jester he was violating the campus solicitation policy and had to leave. (USM officials did not dispute this description of the incident.)

Jones doesn’t know who called the police, but after Jester left, a manager at the Physical Plant asked Jones to follow her back to her office so she could make a copy of UCW’s fliers. Jones told her no, she was off the clock. If she wanted one, she could’ve asked Jester for it. 

Around the same time, 24-year-old Kyrelle Harris, a former custodian, said he was fired because he accumulated too many points. Harris said he was outspoken about how USM made him use vacation time when he got COVID in early 2020 and was still too sick to return to work after his quarantine period.After he complained, he said he started to get “nitpicked” about his work on the job. 

In a statement, Margaret Ann McCloud, USM’s spokesperson, wrote USM “offers staff members with medical conditions access to multiple avenues of employment protection” and does not retaliate. She said “only one Physical Plant employee has lost a job for excessive absences under the points system in the past 12 months.” 

Harris never joined UCW, even though he wanted his working conditions to improve. He said he couldn’t afford the $15 monthly dues on his paycheck. He also said he felt like custodians who had advocated for higher wages or better working conditions never got anywhere, which made him feel discouraged from trying. 

After Ewing finished his speech on Thursday, he led Jones, Jester, and the rest of the protesters in a short march to the Aubrey K. Lucas Administration Building, where Bennett’s office is. Jester paused on the steps. He held up a manila envelope of pledge cards, turned to Jones, and nodded. They had spent a year working toward this moment, but neither of them knew what to expect. “Alright,” he said. 

The inside of the administration building was cooler than outside, lined with dark wood and granite. In a single-file line, Jones, Jester, and J. Theresa Bush, a third member of UCW, walked up to the front desk, introduced themselves to the receptionist, and asked if they could talk to Bennett. After a moment, a white man came out, and Jester handed him the envelope. They turned to leave. Then Bennett walked out the glass doors of his office. 

“Good to see you,” he said. “Tell me what this is about.” 

Since Bennett became president in 2013, USM has grown its economic footprint and reached record levels of enrollment. Raising the minimum wage that year was just one of a number of decisions that garnered good will. According to Gulf Live, Bennett made the decision in response to a request from a worker at an open forum. 

“This will allow employees to live the type of life that USM employees should be able to live,” Bennett said at the time. “I think it will allow employees to spend more time with their families and children. It’s the right thing to do, and it will have an impact on the economics of the community.” 

But in the eight years since the raise, many low-wage workers say their take-home pay has not significantly increased. In a statement, Jim Coll, USM’s chief communication officer, said that “while the USM minimum pay rate has remained the same, employees at all pay levels have received pay increases on multiple occasions over the past decade, and have benefitted from promotion opportunities.”

USM President Rodney Bennett greets protesters holding a packet containing the names of supporters calling for a living wage during a rally at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Thursday, May 4, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Standing next to Bennett, Jones felt nervous. She thought he seemed surprised by the protest, and she hoped he would take them seriously. 

“We’re just appealing to you,” Jester said, “because when you came in you raised the wages.” 

“That was a real priority for me when I first got here to do that,” Bennett replied. 

Everybody shook hands and, at first, it seemed like Bennett was going to go back inside his office. Then Bush made a request: Would Bennett come back outside with them? An assistant professor of theater, Bush wanted to give Bennett a chance to acknowledge that he had received UCW’s pledge cards to the protesters. 

“Everybody’s there,” she said. “That would be amazing.” 

Outside, Bennett held up the manila envelope of pledge cards. 

“I’ve got my materials,” he said. “So we’ll take a look at it. Thank y’all for being here.” 

After the protest, Jones and her coworker stuck around the fountain and talked about everything they’d like to see improved at work — the point system, the mandatory overtime, the pay. Jones’ thoughts turned to her brief interaction with Bennett. She felt teary-eyed. 

“I hope it doesn’t turn ugly,” she thought. “But he’s on his way out. The way he looked, he’s only going to do what they let him.” 

Jones also kept thinking about her coworkers, the ones who said they’d be there but didn’t come. In the two years she’d been organizing with USM, the chapter had grown to about 30 members, but it was mostly faculty. Still, she was shocked that so few Physical Plant workers showed up because custodians and other low-wage workers stood to gain the most from a wage increase. 

“It’s their security blanket,” Jones said. “They want more, they know they deserve more, but they’re so afraid of losing this job, they just disconnect, and they don’t want to be associated with it, but they’re willing to reap any benefits that come out of this.” 

A local TV station had filmed the protest, and the next day, Jones heard about the segment from some of her coworkers. They could tell she was in the crowd by her bedazzled “Limited Edition” baseball hat and shiny gold hoops. Jones was tempted to ask where they’d been. Instead, she told them they missed out.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.