On Sept. 13, a number of GW students and workers joined the thousands of students, workers and their allies converging upon Yale University in a massive demonstration of solidarity with the nearly 4,000 Yale workers who have been on strike since the end of last month. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested for blocking traffic in an act of civil disobedience aimed at protesting Yale’s refusal to offer an adequate contract to its workers. Yale’s workers, who have been working without a contract since January 2002, are asking for higher wages, job security and a decent pension plan. GW students and workers took a bus to Yale with students from Georgetown University, the University of Maryland and the American University Law School. We marched with students from as far away as the University of Michigan and Florida State University, as well as Columbia and Harvard universities, among others.
While this was an amazing and worthwhile experience, the truth remains that we didn’t have to make the trek to Yale in order to witness abuses of workers rights. Unfortunately, this has become a common practice at colleges and universities all over the United States. Right here at GW there are several workers’ struggles going on at any given point. Dining service workers are constantly working under the threat of intimidation, harassment and contract violations. Just last week, almost every dining service worker on campus received a paycheck that did not account for at least eight of their working hours. Even after winning contract negotiations last fall, workers are being fired without due process, and supervisory positions that are supposed to go to union employees are being held by management. Our housekeeping, grounds and maintenance workers are forced to pay exorbitant amounts of money each month for health care and get very little in return. Most cannot afford a dental plan because their general health care plan is too costly. One worker found that he got a better deal on eyeglasses from a retail store than through his insurance. Our teaching staff is grossly underpaid and is constantly intimidated by the University, so much so that their right to organize essentially being denied. The parking lot attendants and construction workers whom GW contracts out haven’t been able to organize for their rights, either, and GW has shown no interest in ensuring their basic human rights. Most of the workers who make GW’s apparel and other logo items work extremely long hours for atrociously low pay under horrific working and living conditions. Yet University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg refuses to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium in order to help ensure our apparel is made under adequate conditions. The administration has taken no proactive steps to ameliorate any of these situations.
Some argue that GW can’t be blamed for the actions of the corporations from which it contracts services. However, GW’s name becomes associated with all that these corporations and their employees do. It is clear that the University cares a great deal about its image, yet GW has consistently contracted out to employers who abuse workers’ rights. The University has recently launched a large movement to spread the notion of GW as a good neighbor and active participant in the Foggy Bottom community. Yet it seems that most people who work for GW can’t afford to live here. It is not just about wages, however, it is about health care, job security, basic human rights and respect. How can our University pride itself on its sense of community when it turns its back on the people who work every day to keep it functioning?
In a 1994 article in Trusteeship, President Trachtenberg wrote, of U.S. universities, “We must rebuild our bridges to the American heart and declare, in effect, ‘We know what you are going through. We share your concern with the future of the American economy. We are doing our part by working emphatically and firmly with, and on behalf of, you and your children.'” It seems as if President Trachtenberg has not heeded his own advice. He certainly doesn’t seem to be acting on behalf of the people who make this University what it is. All the blame cannot be placed on President Trachtenberg, however. This is our University, and it is time that we all stood up and declared that people’s rights not be violated in our name.
–The writer is a member of the
Progressive Student Union.