Campuses take center stage in fight to defend worker rights

Back in February, the first demonstrations against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walkers proposal to ban collective bargaining took place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when WU-Madison’s Teaching Assistant Association marched from the campus to the capital to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to gut bargaining rights for public sector workers.  Since then, campuses across the country have become center stage in the effort to protect worker rights.

Workers for Sodexo, a Paris-based multi-national food service corporation that operates dining halls at universities all over the US, have been trying to organize a union, but have met stiff resistance from the company. In April, SEIU, which has been helping Sodexo workers organize, called a Clean Up Sodexo day of action to protest company efforts to thwart its workers’ organizing campaign.  United Students Against Sweatshops and other worker support groups on campuses mobilized students to support Sodexo and other workers.

At Tulane University in New Orleans, 50 Sodexo workers held a one-day unfair labor practices strike in April to protest the company’s attempt to intimidate workers who want union recognition. “For too many of us, making ends meet is a daily struggle,” said Jeanette Smith, a Sodexo worker at Tulane who wants union recognition. Smith said that Sodexo has harassed her and other workers for being union supporters.

United Students Against Sweatshop members at Tulane supported the workers strike. “We demand that our university hold Sodexo accountable for the same labor practices Tulane University guarantees its employees,” said Lauren Elliot a USAS activist at Tulane.

The National Labor Relations Board earlier this month charged Sodexo with violating US labor law by interrogating, spying on, and firing and threatening to fire workers at Tulane who want to join SEIU.

Similar support actions took place at other campuses where Sodexo workers are trying to organize. At Emory University in Atlanta, Students and Workers in Solidarity sat-in at the office of the university’s president demanding that Emory terminate its contract with Sodexo because the company harassed and intimidated workers who tried to join SEIU. The protestors also called on Emory to adopt a labor code that ensures that campus subcontractors have the same rights as faculty and staff.

Other organizing campaigns have been going on at campuses. In April, 683 graduate students who work as research and teaching assistants at the State University of New York-Stony Brook won their first three-year contract after an organizing campaign that took ten years. They won this contract “with grassroots, movement-based unionism, said Jim McAsey, organizing director for the Communication Workers of America Local 1104, who helped the graduate students organize. “They recognized their power, organized, took direct action, and commanded respect from (their employer)”

And NYU-Poly, a premier scientific and engineering research university in New York City, research and teaching assistants recently filed a petition for union recognition. Safety concerns are the main reason that the RAs and TAs, who work with hazardous chemicals,  want a union. “A lot of times, we’re alone in our labs, supervising experiments and technical procedures,” said Manoj Ganesh, a research assistant. “But only faculty members can call for assistance to clean up a chemical spills or deal with safety issues. That’s why we need to sit down and talk.” The NYU-Poly RAs and TAs are members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, UAW Local 2110.

University students are also standing up for workers off campus. At the University of Texas at Austin members of United Students Against Sweatshops occupied the office of university president William Powers. USAS members met with Powers to urge him to drop UT’s affiliation with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and affiliate, instead, with the Workers Rights Consortium.  FLA is supposed to monitor factories that manufacture apparel to ensure that sweatshop conditions aren’t imposed on workers. UT makes millions of dollars a year off apparel with its trademark-protected logo on it.

USAS members told Powers that FLA is lax in its efforts to control sweatshop conditions. Students at Cornell University who also conducted an action against FLA put it a little more bluntly on their Facebook page: FLA is “a corrupt factory monitoring group that whitewashes the biggest brands like Nike and Adidas, giving them good PR at the expense of workers rights.”

After listening to the students, Powers refused to commit to making a decision, so the students staged a sit-in. “We told (Powers) that we don’t feel the urgency of this decision is shared by him, and we plan to stay in his office as long as it takes to continue negotiations,” Carson Chavaran, one of the sit-iners told KUT radio. Powers left his office and refused to come back until the students left, which they eventually did.

The spring was a busy month for students supporting workers’ rights. The actions mentioned above are just a few of the many that took place across the country. The challenge for these students will be how to maintain this momentum after the summer break.

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