Yesterday I got three email messages from students and colleagues and a flier in my box for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) burial of the coffin for “Worker’s Justice” at 5 o’clock at the University of Denver. The University subcontracts with Sodexo to manage its campus cafeterias and coffee shops. Demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience and strikes took place in 11 states yesterday including Sodexo’s headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland. These were part of an effort to organize a novel, genuinely international union to counter Sodexo’s abuses in Europe and Latin America as well as the United States (British and French union representatives attended as well as Danny Glover, long an activist for decency). Currently, SEIU has filed 12 unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Sodexo has practiced “intimidation, interrogation, surveillance” and firing in response. Sodexo is the 22nd largest employer in the world, making more than a billion dollars profit in 2009. A brave new world is before us even in the cafeterias of the University of Denver.
Diane Soto, a cook in Nagel hall, spoke at our rally. A colleague was supposed to come and speak along with her, but they have only 5 employees working at the Hall where there are supposed to be 8, and she had to stay. Diane, a mother of two daughters, 3 and 5 years old, whom she was carrying some of the time or played beside her, has learned all 5 jobs in the kitchen because it is never clear whether the company will get enough workers and workers are charged with doing everything (until talk of the union, no supervisor dirtied her hands). This is speed-up with a vengeance. They are not allowed breaks by the supervisors. As Diane put it,
“Most of the time, my coworkers and I are in charge of the kitchen. If there’s a problem, our manager just tells us to fix it. We don’t even go to him sometimes. We serve over 700 students between breakfast and lunch in our shift. We are always shorthanded and the manager never steps in to help cover us. I took the initiative to learn all of the roles in the kitchen, and sometimes I’m running two stations. We cover each other when we’re shorthanded, and a lot of time we don’t get a break all day. Whether or not you get a break, the manager says they have to take the break from your check anyway. They put the responsibility on you to take your break, but since there aren’t enough of us, it’s almost impossible.”
If the workers are sick, they are told to come in (good to know that the University worries about swine flu and ordinary colds getting around), threatened with firing if they don’t. (As another speaker, Daniel Kagan, a state representative, pointed out, this is an issue of trust or respect. Hourly workers at the University are not trusted to deal honorably with disease – are forced to report - whereas faculty and administrators are not. Workers do not receive a living wage, enough to support their families (paid as low as $7.50 an hour, often qualifying for public assistance). They are not paid enough to afford health insurance offered by Sodexo (2/3 of non-managerial employees are not covered; the University also does not contribute to their health care coverage).
As Diane Soto put it, “I have the healthcare plan for myself, but I can’t afford it for my kids. Luckily my ex-husband is able to cover the kids, even though it’s really hard for him. It costs $120 a week out of his check. If we do get sick, it is hard on us. We earn very little sick time, so I save it for when my kids are sick. If I get sick, I have to work anyway, because I don’t have enough sick time. This is a danger to students’ health when we come in sick, but there is no choice.”
Diane also said “most of the workers are really hard workers, yet they don’t get respect or fair treatment. We like our jobs; we love to serve the students. We relate to them, we like to hear their stories. I also really love to cook…Sodexo’s fear and intimidation tactics should stop! I like my job,,.but me and my coworkers are tired of being the backbone of this company and not getting recognized for it.” Like Walmart, Sodexo’s style of capitalism is inconsistent not only with a middle class life, but with democracy and decency.
Rod Sweet, a black worker originally from Oklahoma, also spoke out, “I used to love going to work, but coming into work here makes you feel sad and depressed. It feels like a big waste of time. I’m a prep cook, but most of the time, I don’t now what my job really is. I’m given orders on a list or in a note. When I run out of a product, it gets blamed on me. I got a ‘coaching’ write-up twice. It was not my fault that they don’t order enough. They don’t communicate with me. They don’t let me know what they will need for future days and they don’t keep track of things.”
“In the kitchen,” he continued, “ the ‘Respect and Fair Treatment’ Poster is just a decoration, because the only ones that get any respect here are managers. People here are afraid to even ask a question because we often get yelled at. When I came here, I had 8 years of experience with Sodexo and a good resume. I was overqualified for what I was doing. When I talked to the GM about moving up in the company, he responded, ‘You’re too nice for management.’ I felt like he was stereotyping me. It seems pretty much like if you’re not an asshole, you can’t be a manager here.”
Rod isn’t so nice that he doesn’t speak his mind. Perhaps he was alluding to a different stereotype...
Brother David Garner, one of the Grey Robed Monks of St. Benedict, a graduate of Iliff school of Theology which is on the DU campus, read the mission statements of the University and several schools, including my own. Words such as an academic organization serving a public good featured in each. Does overworking, underpaying and not permitting cooks breaks or sick-leave figure in such a good?
He lead the interment of justice for workers at the University, speaking over the coffin, with the hope of “resurrection.” 150 workers, students, and faculty members showed up (I was delighted to meet Ilene Grabel and Rob Prince from my own department and Haider Khan and George Demartino, who could not come, sent me fliers; perhaps 15 students came also), marched and chanted. Chris Nevitt, a city councilman, speculated that the Chancellor might not know (I strongly suspect he is right about that) and that even the higher ups at Sodexo might not know (less likely since you don't make a billion dollars by enforcing misery without attending to quite specific harassment - or general policies about what each place should clear that requires such harassment - of workers, though the fact that supervisors don't pitch in in difficult circumstances is probably something local).
Dixon Doyle, an undergraduate, spoke eloquently, “I’m sad to see my school administration allow this to happen on our campus. Sodexo workers have become my family, and I am here to stand with all of them.” Nevitt, as well as Joe Miklosi and Daniel Kagen, state representatives, also spoke. I found it heartening that the union had gathered such support and that some Democrats actually walk picket lines (this was not true in ordinary or militant union activities during the Cold War). Miklosi spoke forcefully about how his mother had been a cook (apparently a single mom) in Michigan. She had been determined to put Joe and his brother through college. He was paying a spiritual debt by speaking at this rally and added an historical dimension to its spirit.
When I first came to the University of Denver, I was involved, as a member of the International Committee against Racism, in major worker protests. Joe Patterson, a 55 year old black electrician and union president of AFSCME , lived two doors down from me in campus housing on High Street. He was a very dedicated guy, would come to people’s houses at 3 am if there was an emergency (he wasn’t in it just for the pay…). The University responded by trying to force him to become an electrician’s helper for $2 less an hour and then firing him. He had not been to school as an electrician (learned in the navy, but never had a high school diploma). A year’s campaign, including a rally of 200 people, a hearing with the plant manager, and much sustained effort, forced his rehiring. My older daughter, then 5 or 6, came to some of our rallies (later on she and her husband would became organizers for the SEIU and I have learned from the many struggles they have been involved in).
Despite tutoring by a graduate student in the math department, Joe didn’t pass a math test the next year (I thought this a form of torture myself and found nearly every aspect of the University’s conduct embarrassing). He left the University. I was involved in several more cases defending workers who had been fired, but in the next few years, the University laid off 2/3 of its custodians and smashed the union.
More recently, it has replaced its older staff mainly with Chicano and immigrant workers. It has contracted with Sodexo, the vast, multinational corporation. I talk with the workers sometimes at night at my school (except for students who work, most workers on campus are often invisible to many students and staff; Dan Ritchie, our last chancellor, was a striking exception who went out of his way to talk with everyone on campus and sometimes, himself, cooked food at University holiday events). Although we are located in a Latin part of the country (part of our state was annexed from Mexico along with California, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona in the American aggression of 1846-48), this is the only highly latino part of the campus population. The University makes a special effort to foster higher education for Chicanoes at West High School (also part of Dan Ritchie’s legacy), but the undergraduate population is overwhelmingly white, and even at the school of international studies, I had to raise an issue about why a very well qualified (and it turned out brilliant) Vietnamese orphan raised in a Chicano family had not been admitted to our program…
But the University has contracted with Sodexo; there is something frightening and sad about a multinational corporation providing food services (probably accompanying a significant rise in provision of fast food or chemicals flavored to provide food-like substances without nutrition to University students in the US and abroad). That people like Diane Soto put their hearts into cooking would make Sodexo decent and well thought of; that it treats Diane with such miserable contempt about breaks and sick leave and pay reveals its deficiency. But surely the University can do something about this.
I have written about Marx’s activities in organizing international strike support in the International Workingmen’s Association (1864-72). This involved Europe-wide strikes for instance, strike support on the Continent to prevent scabs from being hastily imported into England; or strike support from England for Belgian mine workers and the like. It also involved organizing large demonstrations in London, one of a 100, 000, English and Irish immigrant workers, in solidarity with independence for Ireland (think of the dire conflicts that might have been avoided…). I published “Marx on Internationalism and War,” about these matters in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1978 reprinted in Marshall Cohen and Thomas Scanlon, eds, Marx, Justice and History, and in my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? ch. 3). But with Cold War anti-communism, unions did not participate in international organizing, or, except from below, in anti-Vietnam war and other protests.
The lifting of the Cold War, however, meant that union leaders could think both about whether war served their members and whether internationalism might be the only way to go to counter giant exploiters like Sodexho (SEIU is the largest union in the country – 2.2 million workers, and under the leadership of Andy Stern, by far the most creative, as this international effort shows). I was asked to speak to SEIU workers, both immigrant custodians and medical workers, against the War in 2003. Yesterday, the 150 of us at the University of Denver were all part of a campaign to organize internationally a union to get workers at the University of Denver break time, non-speed up, a living wage, and sick leave. Failing to do justice or in this case decency, (a rare matter, I must say), capitalism breeds international dissidence. But there is still something appalling that a union would have to organize all this effort internationally to get Diane Soto a break during her work.
Most universities behave disgracefully as employers. They become civilized, even with graduate teaching assistants, only through organization and sometimes going on strike. It is the same problem with the search for knowledge. Faculty and students in universities revel in seeking the truth and finding out things that are unexpected and surprising. But the boards of Universities are made up of the rich, not the academically distinguished, though sometimes, people who care about academic integrity. “[Most] philosophers,” as Socrates once said, “sit at the doors of the rich.” Universities are also funded by the government including the CIA and other shadowy and doubtfully democratic organiations. What one is encouraged, let alone funded to pursue is much more limited than it might be, and what some pursue (consider the objections of several hundred anthropologists to the use of anthropologists and psychologists in the Human Terrain System Program by the occupying forces in Afghanistan here or of psychologists from below to the role of the American Psychological Association in licensing “professional” participation in torture - crosses the boundary of eccentricity or self-deception into genuine harm. Still universities often permit people to and sometimes even celebrate them for going their own way. This is a public good. It would be a fine thing if through international unionizing of Sodexo, SEIU could achieve breaks and sick days for people like Diane Soto. That, too, would be a sign of democracy, a public good.