Who bears responsibility when workers at a university campus are unable to exercise their basic rights and freedoms? Who bears responsibility for the workers at GW’s Colonial Parking trying to organize for better wages, better health care and a better standard of living for their families? Who bears responsibility for cafeteria workers struggling in the face of contracting out? Or for housekeepers, members of SEIU Local 82, facing a tough contract fight because of health care? Or for making sure construction work on campus is done with union workers at the union wage, with health care? Is the University responsible? Not according to GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. How about the rest of us, citizens of the world’s richest country?
All of our futures are tied inextricably together in a web of relationships that define what it is to be human. We humans are social creatures who prosper together, and the whole history of our species is the struggle to lift us all up together instead of a few taking all the wealth and power. Union organizing is one of the highest forms of human endeavor – the effort to lift all people up together by cooperation and collaboration, not by pushing one another out of the way, climbing over each other in a competition to get to the top.
Research tells us that 45 million American workers would prefer to be part of a union. They want health care, job safety, secure pensions and a voice on the job. And as our brothers and sisters struggle for dignity and health care for their kids and a better quality of life in an apartment in a safe complex instead of a drug-ridden one, they struggle in a swamp of injustice. GW is not the only institution or corporation in this country doing its best to ignore, downplay or outright violate the legal and moral right of its workers to form a union.
The rights to freely associate, to freely organize a union, to bargain collectively, are fundamental human rights upheld by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, the ILO Charter and other tenets of international law. But Human Rights Watch, an international organization that monitors human rights abuses, has declared the United States to be in serious violation of the rights of its workers.
So what’s the big deal? Why would anyone fight about these issues? And why should the University or Washington, D.C., citizens take any responsibility? Why would a mother making poverty wages at one of the richest universities in the richest country in the history of the world fight so her baby can go to the doctor when she’s sick? Why would adjunct faculty try to organize a union so they can be treated with dignity and respect? Don’t they know there’s a reason they’re not on the tenure track? And why would an immigrant parking attendant from Central America seek dignity through forming a union? Doesn’t he know he’s lucky to work here – and that his dignity is expendable?
We have our own human rights crisis in America. And none of us has the luxury of turning our faces, averting our eyes to the routine trampling of human rights that goes on every day in America, that goes on every day at GW. None of us has the luxury of ignoring human rights abuses. Our society has already been affected – the coarsening of our public discourse, the capitulation of public morality to corporate bottom lines, the dangerously rightward drift of our politics, the media objectification of women.
We are all responsible. We are all responsible for 250 million kids who go to work every day instead of to school, for kids who can see but can’t read; for mothers at GW who cry all night with their babies because they know there is nothing they can do. Is it worth the struggle? Is humanity worth the struggle?
–The writer is the national organizing director of the AFL-CIO.