Fight For Your Community: A Call for Solidarity

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Writing faculty Dennis Nurkse once argued against the idea that the Sarah Lawrence system embodies a lack of conviction by asserting that “it’s not that we lack parameters, expectations and evaluative mechanisms; this place is dedicated to real work, to culture that changes lives.”

This progressive perspective is what draws students year after year to Sarah Lawrence, and what makes us as individuals so invested in this tiny intellectual haven. But something at odds with this progressiveness continues on a daily basis on our campus; the relegation of a vital part of our community to the status of a permanent underclass. What we don’t see when we go to fetch our coffee at the Pub is the daily struggle of those who feed us. They struggle for the right to respect, integrity, and decent work for decent pay.

Photo credit Max Kowai, 2010

At the heart of this contention is a long and fraught tale of the relationship between the Sarah Lawrence administration, the subcontracted foodservice company AVI Fresh, and a larger community of students. AVI Fresh was not always the company that coordinated food services; a different company, Flik, had been with the school for about 30 years when their contract expired in late 2009. For then-new President Karen Lawrence, the contract’s expiration represented an opportunity to revamp food services, and AVI ultimately won the contract for this job. A few key factors contributed to the choice. One was AVI’s image as a small company oriented towards sustainable options, which appealed to the Sarah Lawrence ethic.

The other daunting factor was the fiscal crisis. “A sobering reality,” noted President Lawrence in the 2009 year-end report, “is the substantial jump in need we experienced with our incoming class. A larger percentage of this excellent class required financial aid and the average aid increased, putting a strain on our already constrained resources.” Clearly, cost-consciousness was on the school’s mind, which was why AVI’s agreement to renovate Bates Dining Hall must have seemed like a great deal. It was important to the administration that the campus be fitted with dining services that would attract and retain high-paying students, and do so at little expense to the school.

The transition, however, between Flik and AVI was not as smooth as everyone hoped. Following verbal agreements between student solidarity clubs and the administration, the changeover was supposed to maintain employment for workers already at the school. On the first day of work with the new company, everyone was rehired and given uniforms. Then, AVI called in each worker for one-on-one interviews in which they questioned them, without a lawyer present, about their immigration status. In the end, 14 people lost their jobs, some of whom had served the school for 20 years. No one was deported, and it is unclear how many were actually undocumented immigrants.

After this incident, AVI employees began to identify other problems in their workplace. In addition to incidents of verbal and physical abuse and an intimidating managerial presence, workers felt sharply undercompensated for their work. One cook remarked that “With the wages I get at AVI, it is very hard to support my two children and my wife”. To receive company health insurance, workers were asked to pay almost $100 a week on an average wage of less than $10 an hour. “For me, it is impossible to pay this sum”, explained our cook. To address this injustice, the workers formed a committee of shop leaders to organize their coworkers, delegate concerns to the company, and invoke the legal protection of the union (Unite-Here! Local 100) when necessary. The committee negotiated their first union contract with AVI in 2010. Monica Wise ’11 helped organize student support to pressure the company throughout the negotiations for the contract. “We made posters, passed out leaflets and helped organize demonstrations, raising awareness among the SLC student body and staff. These efforts ultimately helped pressure the company to agree to affordable health care and a decent contract.”

The 2010 contract was an important step forward to provide workers with a legal, collective means to defend their rights and negotiate for more affordable healthcare. However, worrying reports of managerial behavior have persisted. Among them are disregard for job classifications (which help workers manage their workload and prevent understaffing), disrespectful language, and wage theft as workers must work off the clock in order to finish their assignments. One Pub employee says he is angered by the company’s behavior. “I am always grateful for my job. I am here very early every day because I want to serve you guys well,” he said, “but I don’t want to feel abused”.

To address these issues, a team of workers and students met on December 5, 2012 with President Lawrence to discuss ongoing problems, present a student solidarity petition that had reached almost 500 signatures, and take steps towards a solution. The President, disregarding the wishes of SLC Worker’s Justice, stipulated that she would not meet unless the meeting went unrecorded. Written notes were, however, permitted. Workers elaborated on a range of grievances, from the quality of the food to safety to the overwhelming workload. The administration took a tentative and distant stance, stressing their preference that workers utilize the union and existing grievance process to address issues. Students pointed out that the grievance process works best when management is willing to respect the union – an attitude that rarely emerges without outside pressure. Ultimately, the administration indicated a desire to meet again for further discussion, but made no formal statement in response to the petition of solidarity or to the various issues raised by workers.

The upcoming expiration of the contract between AVI and the workers’ collective bargaining unit lends a particular significance to these events. When a contract expires, both parties must meet to negotiate a new contract and bargain for specific demands, a process which will begin this March. While workers have met in private at the aforementioned meeting with administration and with students, their resistance to speaking publicly indicates a culture of fear that can be debilitating to the advance of crucial demands. What’s called “negotiating in good faith” – when both parties come to the table and bargain with intent to reach agreement – has very few specific legal criteria, meaning AVI doesn’t have many legal obligations in the process.

However, there are important conditions necessary for a level playing field. They include setting accessible and stable dates, times, and locations for bargaining sessions; making translators available for Spanish-speaking workers; ensuring democracy and transparency in the process; and a lack of retaliation or intimidation against workers for their legal union activity. As suggested by Monica Wise’s account of the 2010 negotiations, AVI’s willingness to negotiate fairly was contingent upon pressure from the larger school community. For workers to feel secure in making demands in negotiations, this kind of pressure will likely again be necessary.

But what of the school’s financial solvency in relation to the new contract? It’s a well-known fact that the school’s endowment is in dire straits, putting student aid and department funding alike at risk. In this light, it’s easy to question how much we can really support the workers that make our community run. But SLC is not AVI’s only client. In fact, the company services over 30 clients throughout the US and Canada, including Chrysler LLC, FedEx, General Motors, thirteen different colleges, and even Starbucks and Taco Bell.
Wages can vary according to seniority, but Glassdoor.com shows that the average AVI dining worker makes around $20,000 per year, whereas a salaried General Manager makes up to $57k. It’s important to note that Sarah Lawrence workers are struggling for decent pay and better job conditions from a multinational company operating with a wealth of resources, and that their fight is linked to that of AVI workers all over the country.

The existence of this kind of capitalist exploitation on our campus should raise uncomfortable questions for any student attracted to Sarah Lawrence for its egalitarian sensibility. How is it that such a sharp divide between student and worker experiences came to be, and why is it so hard to break down? Why do basic demands for dignity and fair pay meet with such resistance from AVI and ambivalence from the administration? And what can be done to reclaim our community from such inequality?

One answer may lie in interrogating our own roles as students. Are we simply consumers, purchasing bits and pieces of the college experience with each seminar, meal plan swipe, and 1card refill? Or are we the diverse and passionate intellectuals that make the SLC pedagogy meaningful, who have the power to shape our education and community for a better future? The relationship of student and worker should not be one of the laborer and the serviced, but one of partnership, with each doing equally vital work to sustain our institution.

“We don’t have what you have,” our source said of the disparity between AVI employees and the rest of Sarah Lawrence. “But money isn’t everything. It’s not what you have. It’s what you give.”

This doesn’t only apply to those of us who are lucky enough to be able to pay for this truly unique education. As many of us face rising debts and crippling financial insecurity, it’s easy to feel as if we have few options and little to offer. But a united student body – collectively empowered not only through sheer financial thrust but through diverse talents of media, art, communication, and critical astuteness – can demand accountability from this company. The truth is that we are clients and students both, with stakes as AVI customers and as individuals invested in our community. The power of solidarity lies not in a sense of charity but in the knowledge that it is mutually transformative, whether you are in front of or behind the counter at Bates. If we can’t support the worker’s fight for better jobs, Sarah Lawrence will remain the exclusive, stratified, and insular institution it was never meant to be.

The time is now to make the workers’ fight Sarah Lawrence’s fight. We stand with them, we organize alongside them, and with them we fulfill the original vision of our school.

You can get involved with Sarah Lawrence Worker’s Justice by liking our Facebook page, dropping in to our weekly meetings (Mondays at 9:00 pm in the North Room of the Pub), or signing up for our email list by contacting workersjustice@gm.slc.edu.

Ella Mahony is transferring to Brooklyn College for the last bits of her BA, and tweets when she feels like it at @ellamny.

4 Comments

  • Reply February 23, 2013

    Luis

    Great article, and really inspiring to see this work being done. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the workers could actually own and operate the food service cooperatively with students? Maybe the following paper has bits and pieces of interesting information. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1rr-EoynUAxcEc2RFpHTTFxQjg/edit?usp=sharing

  • Reply February 26, 2013

    Kathryn

    It’s very unpopular to say this at SLC, but I think the food workers are rude, take no pride in their work, and are extraordinarily disrespectful to students. I’ve seen multiple incidents where the food workers deny people the common courtesy that any other business establishments give and then wonder why they don’t get rave reviews. The worker justice group criticizes the main manager (Sirakulla) constantly but she’s the only one who holds people accountable for the things that we ALL complain about.

  • Reply February 26, 2013

    Ari Jones

    I caution the author to make such harsh accusations against the administration without directly quoting Karen Lawrence. Was she interviewed or asked for comment? Did she refuse? The administration’s desire to go through union channels is a legitimate one that should not be ridiculed.

    That said, this article very clearly lays out the other sides of the issue. I really appreciated learning about the transition from Flik to AVI, and about the meeting of students, workers, and admin. Thank you for providing more background on this issue. I hope that more concrete progress can be made soon!

  • Reply February 27, 2013

    Ella

    To Kathryn: I wish I could respond adequately to your comment, but unfortunately I can’t because I’m not sure what specifically you may be referring to. I’ve personally never experienced rudeness or a lack of common courtesy here, so I’m at a bit of a loss. However, if you have experienced this, that’s obviously a concern. I’d beg you to consider the difficulty of managing a huge amount of customers (just think of how many students you see in the Pub during peak meal times) in a chronically understaffed workplace. An environment where workers have manageable workloads and more control over the day-to-day questions of shop management is usually one where customers receive the best service, because people are less stressed and feel more responsibility for something they have ownership over. One of the biggest frustrations I hear from workers is that they cannot do their job well with the way they are treated and the conditions under which they work. Just think of how much more responsibility and pride you feel in your conference work vs in your SAT scores. Obviously I’m making assumptions, but I’m using the analogy to show how much more powerful our relationship to work is when we have ownership over it. We have that relationship with conference work because it’s OURS and our teachers trust us to shape it how we see fit, whereas our SAT scores just show how well you can memorize information. I truly believe that creating an environment where *everyone* can have ownership over their work, without intimidation or degradation, is a natural conclusion of the Sarah Lawrence pedagogy.

    Ari – I wish I could provide quotes, but that’s exactly the difficulty of having a meeting without recording. We were able to take general notes but our quotes, naturally, are imprecise.
    As for the question of union channels: I am the first person to promote the use of the union to resolve issues. But there are two things that are important to note here. One is that workers have, repeatedly, used the legal union process of filing grievances to address issues and have not seen their demands seriously considered by management. We’re not questioning the importance or efficacy of union channels; we’re trying to *promote* those channels by ensuring that the company holds up *its* end of the bargain when those channels are used. That AVI respect the grievance process so that it can continue to be a viable option is one of our central demands.

    The second: it’s important to understand that the union is not some kind of third party here. A union is literally a unit of workers that can use its collective power to bargain with their employer. So when we refer to the “union” we must remember that we are referring directly to the workers themselves. The grievance process, wherein a legal complaint regarding a possible violation of contract is filed with the employer, is only one way a union might address issues. The insistence that this is the *only* legitimate channel is unnecessarily restrictive (it’s often too specific for situations that continually change or involves a lot of legalese for a mostly spanish-speaking workforce) and ignores the basic legitimacy of the workers as an equal party in the contract with the company. If we allow that the company need not always request legal arbitration when they want to change something, we must allow the same of the workers

    Thanks for reading and for the feedback!

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