Students, workers join forces for labor rights

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – When demanding better labor conditions, workers in many industries often have only limited means of support. But at many colleges and universities, school employees are teaming up with a potentially invaluable ally: The students they serve on a daily basis.

At schools across the country a growing number of student activists are taking up the movement for campus workers rights, speaking up for university employees — from groundskeepers to food servers — who complain of low wages, excessive workloads and a general feeling of disrespect.

It’s an area, experts say, where students can have a real impact. While campus workers often face an uphill battle when negotiating with the administration directly, students’ tuition dollars drive the school’s activities, making their concerns less easy to ignore.

“They play a huge part,” said Mackenzie Barris, lead organizer for the Washington, D.C., chapter of Jobs With Justice. “The university is there to educate the students, so usually they have some sense that they need to take into account the students’ feelings about things. When the students advocate that they want to see better working conditions, that makes a huge difference.”

Last month, students at Georgetown University drew national attention with a nine-day hunger strike that helped secure higher wages for almost all of the school’s 450 contract employees, putting a spotlight on the issue. Students are also organizing at other DC schools, using a combination of tactics from agitation to diplomacy.

Barris coordinates the DC Student Labor Action Project, an affiliation of progressive student organizations from Georgetown, George Washington University, American University and the University of Maryland that meets several times a year to discuss workers rights and develop strategies. While participation varies from school to school, Barris said the issue is one that students are naturally drawn to.

“I think in general students care about the conditions for workers on their campus who they see every day,” said Barris. “A lot of times it’s the same person each day who’s serving food in the cafeteria or cleaning a particular building, so often they chat with these people and know them, and there’s a sense of warmth there.”

For many activists, the initial challenge is to make the university community aware of the issue. Simon Fitzgerald, a leading activist for Students and Workers Unite at UMD, said using student media outlets to bring workers rights into the limelight is a one of his organization’s priorities.

“With access to the media, you can definitely change the framing of the debate and change the importance of the debate,” said Fitzgerald. “There are no housekeepers on the student newspaper, but there are students, and if students are talking to those housekeepers and helping them articulate their message, then that will be much more acceptable to other students.”

Fitzgerald said several opinion pieces and editorials published in the school’s newspaper, The Diamondback, have helped create greater awareness for workers concerns, fostering a sense of respect for university staff. Currently the group is focusing on helping non-English-speaking employees who have more trouble communicating with their employers directly.

At other schools, activists are moving to engage student more directly. Members of the Progressive Student Union at GWU have held a number of on-campus rallies, including a protest last spring in the school’s student center in which 16 students were arrested. The group also holds regular teach-ins and community dinner meetings between staff, students and administrators meant to create dialogue between the different groups.

“If the students are mad enough and motivated enough, they can get things changed,” said Josh Steverman, a lead activist for the PSU at GWU. “The main thing is communication. If everyone knows what’s going on and knows the issues… then at some point the embarrassment about what’s going on has the potential to change a lot.”

Indeed, the activists do feel as though they’re making progress. Students at Howard University helped renew stalled wage talks between employees and the university last month after a rally on the school’s courtyard, and students at GWU played an integral role in helping landscapers achieve greater health benefits last year. Several noted that campus workers are often better off than laborers in other industries, in large part due to the support they’ve gotten from students.

And while there’s still plenty of work left to do, say activists, the movement is on the rise.

“I definitely see this growing,” said Barris. “The student-labor support network has only gotten stronger and more present in the media… and it’s becoming something that’s more present in the labor movement as a whole.”

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