A judge has found that administrators at Rutgers University in New Jersey illegally told low-paid office cleaners they would be fired if they attempted to unionise.
The custodians at Rutgers worked for a private contractor that was hired by the university. When they began to organise for better wages and health benefits, university officials threatened to fire them and hire a different company, the federal judge found. The university was ordered to let the organising effort proceed.
Rutgers called the case a "misunderstanding". University officials said their actions were motivated "by the university's responsibility as a public institution to manage public funds efficiently".
The case follows protests against Harvard, America's wealthiest university, for paying near-poverty wages to custodial and food-service workers. The controversy has led to calls for pay increases for the lowest-paid university employees on about 100 campuses.
A survey by the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers found that several wealthy private universities pay their custodial workers and groundskeepers less than $14,150 (£9,800) a year, which the government considers to be the poverty level. These include the University of Miami, which has a $465 million endowment but its security staff earn an average of $13,120 a year.