Students call for worker rights

A day of protests by the Progressive Student Union Thursday culminated in a picket line outside the MPA building an hour before the taping of CNN’s “Crossfire.”

About 20 students and community members who gathered for the evening demonstration said they were protesting Oncore Construction’s alleged abuse of foreign workers working at the Virginia Campus who obtain work visas through Oncore. The demonstration was one of many on campus Thursday, a national day of protest.

“The contractor has incredible leverage over the work force. If they complain, Oncore can fire them. If they leave their job, they have no legal right to stay here,” labor organizer Steve Lanning said.

The Progressive Student Union set up an inflatable rat on the H Street side of the building. The rat was displayed at least once before outside of the Marvin Center and the Media and Public Affairs building. The rat held a sign that read, “President Trachtenberg supports the exploitation of D.C.’s African-American and Latino workers.”

Protesters marching outside the building said they were trying to put pressure on GW to use contractors with fair hiring practices.

Following the last protest in late March, GW officials denied the accusations and said the allegations may be a “smokescreen” for employee unionization.

“We will continue to pay attention to the claims and support good labor practices,” GW Director of University Relations Gretchen King said earlier.

Although the protests were mostly peaceful, the 20 protesters did block the intersection of H and 21 streets just after 6 p.m. for a couple minutes, impeding rush hour traffic for several blocks.

MPD officers already on the scene to prevent a disturbance stepped in to direct traffic, and the protesters moved back to the sidewalk.

Rumors circulated that the protesters would enter the building and try to attract attention during the live broadcast of “Crossfire.” While a contingent of protesters did enter the auditorium, they did not cause a disturbance during the show.

Steve Lanning said he and the other demonstrators were prepared to deal with police if they had to.

“We are willing to do civil disobedience, and we will go to jail if we have to,” Lanning said.

Lanning also said he planned to return to protest at “Crossfire” this week with another group of protesters.

The Progressive Student Union, along with the Laborers International Union and the Mid-Atlantic Regional, carried out the last protest of the
day.

Protests earlier in the day were aimed at what organizers called GW’s
refusal to work with the Workers Right Consortium, an independent group that monitors the labor practices of contractors for 95 colleges across the nation. American and Georgetown universities are among the affiliates, and GW has refused in the past to pay the $1,000 entrance fee.

Earlier this year, GW disputed claims from the PSU that contracted apparel company New Era has unfair labor practices in a New York factory but canceled the contract anyway.

GW officials have told the students that if they raised the $1,000 entry fee for the WRC the school will join.

During the hour-long protest in front of Rice Hall, several students from the group of 30 entered the building and hand-delivered a letter listing their demands to President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s personal
secretary.

Organizers said that although they did not expect an immediate response from GW on the WRC issue, they thought the protests were successful.

Trachtenberg was not in his office and was unavailable for comment Friday.

PSU organizer Eleiza Braun, a junior, said that she felt the protests got the right message across.

“I don’t expect a response on WRC, but the message is that we’re going to be out there until Trachtenberg is forced to listen to student labor and community action,” Braun said.

Following the WRC protest, students moved outside the School Without Walls High School on GW’s campus.

PSU supporters and Teamsters protested D.C. Board of Education funding cutbacks. Representatives of the union of custodians, engineers and cafeteria workers and the principal’s union were on hand along with the national head of the AFL-CIO John Sweeney.

Sweeney, speaking from the steps of the high school, told a crowd of about 60 people, “Our mutual commitment to social and economic justice is as strong as ever.”

Both unions argued that without maintenance workers to keep up the school buildings and funding for repairs, students would not be able to learn in a clean, safe environment.

Leroy Atkins, a maintenance worker at the Kramer school, said D.C. public schools are firing maintenance workers to try to balance the budget.

“Every time they give out a raise, they fire somebody. They call that balancing the budget,” Atkins said.

Frank Bolden, president of the Principals union who was a principal for 33 years, said he hoped the protests would bring attention to the plight of D.C. public schools. According to a recent survey conducted by congress, D.C. has the most number of schools per school district in need of repair in the country.

“It’s going to get some visibility and results from the school board. They respond to things like this. With John Sweeney showing up, it really puts a cap on things,” Bolden said.

The day chosen to fall on the third annual National Student Labor Day of Action sponsored by United Students Against Sweatshops, the United States Student association and Jobs with Justice. April 4 marks the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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