Emory campus arrests galvanize university-wide opposition to labor policies

Emory students are pulled out of the Students and Workers in Solidarity “tent city” and taken to jail. Photo by Emiko Soltis.

Just two days after Janet Napolitano gave the commencement speech and accepted her honorary degree at Emory University, Emory’s President James Wagner was called into a packed room of faculty, staff, and students to discuss security issues of another kind. Numerous petitions containing hundreds of signatures forced Wagner to address the university’s ethical stance in arresting peaceful protesters just two weeks prior. The petitions also called on Wagner to publicly discuss Emory’s responsibility to sub-contracted campus food service workers, for whom the protesters were holding vigil.

The Students and Workers in Solidarity group (SWS), seven of whom were arrested on April 25th, were initially told that they had had over one week to maintain their “tent-city” vigil. Two days before this deadline, however, the students were unexpectedly approached by the university’s Vice President Gary Hauk and a crew of police officers. The students were given five minutes notice to remove everything—themselves included—or head to jail, which is where those who chose to remain, hands locked in song and prayer, ended up.

Emory’s campus SWS chapter began in January of 2010 after several founding members met to discuss the complaints of campus food-service workers sub-contracted by the food service corporation Sodexo. These included fear of losing work after a Sodexo-mandated “informative meeting on unions” indicated union organizing activity would not be tolerated; reports of discrimination against black workers including name-calling and derogatory treatment; the inability to access crucial health services; and the denial of basic benefits. SWS students then researched Emory University’s labor policies and learned that Emory maintains a two-tier labor system.

Those hired directly by the university enjoy protection under Emory’s Code of Business Ethics and Conduct, decent benefits, and participation in the university’s Employee Council. The other workers are employed by a company contracted by Emory to provide certain services. Sub-contracted workers are excluded from the Business Ethics Code, receive only a fraction of the benefits other campus workers enjoy, and have no explicit forum in which to address the quality of their labor experience on campus.

Emory’s SWS soon drafted and submitted a proposal to the university asking: 1.) to implement a Labor Code of Conduct extending the same rights and benefits to contracted and sub-contracted campus employees and, 2.) to form a President’s Commission on the Status of Labor that would oversee the implementation of such a code. Following a petition with over 100 signatures, the university’s president responded that “the employees in question are not Emory employees, and Emory does not control the labor policies of its contractors.” Another petition was circulated specifically among faculty members who openly denounced the university’s elision of ethical engagement with its worker community.

Mobilization revved up again in the fall when Human Rights Watch released the report, “A Strange Case: Violation of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations” revealing that, Sodexo, the world’s 21st largest corporation, has violated international standards with which the company itself publicly proclaims adherence. On April 20, 2011, the president was called on to address campus sub-contracted labor policies at a public rally attended by Emory students, staff, faculty, food service workers and the general public. Vice President Hauk attended in Wagner’s place and read an email stating that any conflict regarding the labor conditions of sub-contracted employees is a conflict outside of the administration’s jurisdiction. He further cautioned student organizers not to fall prey to the interests of the Service Employees International Union, also taking on Sodexo (although having no formal connection with Emory’s campus-wide, student-initiated movement).

At the same rally, Isaac Ferris, Jr., the nephew of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and current president of Atlanta’s historic King Center, reminded those gathered that, when he was assassinated, King was marching with sanitation workers. Ferris then publicly pledged Southern Christian Leadership Conference commitment to supporting Emory’s campus organizers.

Emory’s SWS follows waves of labor organizing on that campus and across the country. As early as 1969, Emory’s Black Student Alliance entered the dining hall to rally against the poor treatment of cafeteria workers. Today these types of student-worker solidarity initiatives continue at campuses nationwide, including movements at Clark University, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Northeastern, Ohio State, Pomona College, Rutgers, Scripps College, Stanford, Tulane, University of Chicago, University of Texas, University of Washington, University of Wisconsin, and William and Mary, among others.

The outcome of the May 11th meeting with Emory’s president was mixed. He continued to frame the issue as one outside of the administration’s jurisdiction and once again chided students not to be drawn into a battle between two large stakeholders, Sodexo and its rival union. There was promise of the potential for another exploratory commission, yet campus organizers are skeptical after last year’s commission failed to equally extend a campus Code of Labor. The charges against those arrested—due to trial in July—remain.

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