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Workers unite: GSC organizes around labor rights
In the spring of 2005, 26 members of Georgetown Solidarity Committee staged an eight-day hunger strike as part of their Living Wage Campaign, a multi-year effort to improve the working conditions of the University’s subcontracted custodial staff. At the outset of the campaign, many custodial workers were not even making minimum wage. According to Gladys Cisneros (COL ’04, MA ‘06), then a member of Solidarity and now an AFL-CIO employee, GSC’s ultimate goal was a wage floor based not on the legal minimum wage, but rather on standard of living.
Before the hunger strike, GSC members spent four years sitting on committees, protesting and questioning the administration’s wage policies. Eventually, they began to feel that their interaction with the University was nothing more than symbolic, so they took measures to draw the eye of the administration.
“The hunger strike was a tactic that got attention,” said Sarah David-Heydemann (COL ‘09), who wrote her senior thesis on GSC. “I think the basic idea was that if the University wasn’t going to focus on the needs of the workers, maybe they would care about the students.”
As the protesters camped out in Red Square and the community watched their health deteriorate, the strike attracted both detractors and supporters. Many workers were afraid to speak out during the campaign, which in turn led some observers to dismiss the activists as rabble-rousers or martyrs. “Some people thought it was a bunch of self-righteous kids,” Cisneros said, who opted out of the hunger strike, but served as GSC’s liaison to the workers. “We said, ‘Well no…We’ve actually done meticulous research on this for years.’”
Despite such dismissals, support for the hunger strike came from all areas of campus, proving much stronger than the negativity that hovered above the movement. Religious leaders like Father Raymond Kemp, who staged a prayer vigil with the strikers, came out in support of GSC. The history department drafted a resolution in support of the activists. The Corp issued a statement supporting the campaign, and wrote checks for the difference between actual wages and the ones Solidarity was demanding to any workers who cleaned Corp facilities.
Members of the D.C. community also pledged their support. District Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton came to speak to the protesters, as did AFL-CIO President Rich Trumpka. Jos Williams, President of the D.C. Central Labor Council, took it a step further when he threatened to go on hunger strike in conjunction with the students, an act some Solidarity members credit with the University’s eventual capitulation.
“What was the straw that broke the camel’s back?” David-Heydemann asked. “I think that’s the definition of solidarity. Students showed solidarity with the workers and the community showed solidarity with us.”
The Living Wage Campaign counts as one of Solidarity’s greatest successes. According to Georgetown professor Michael Kazin, a scholar of progressive movements, GSC is uniquely influential—not only in the way it attracts attention to social justice issues, but in the tangible, identifiable changes it has affected in the community.
“Sometimes people in progressive movements mistake their presence, their demonstrations, their protests, themselves for making change,” said Kazin, himself a former member of Students for a Democratic Society. “On the other side of a protest, the other side of progressivism, you’ve got to change people’s lives. If you don’t change people’s lives, then at some level it’s just rhetoric.”
Most of GSC’s campaigns concern workers’ rights, but beyond that commitment, the group does not subscribe to an official ideology. “We talk about the workers on our campus and in our city,” Solidarity member Sam Geaney-Moore (SFS ‘12) said. “There might be an implicit, shared ideological basis there, but it’s not theoretical. It’s just a shared commitment to human values and social justice.”
According to Geaney-Moore, GSC’s issue-based approach precludes ideological conflict within the group, and facilitates a non-hierarchical structure. In fact, GSC makes all its major decisions through the consensus model, under which all members must agree on a decision for the group to move forward. While it often makes for long meetings, Solidarity members say their non-hierarchical model has strengthened and expanded their organization. “It’s refreshing compared to other groups you go to, because everyone has a voice,” Gina Bull (COL ‘12), a member since her sophomore year, said.
David-Heydemann attributes GSC’s durability to the consensus system in particular. “It ensures teaching of younger students,” she said. “It allows people to be 100 percent involved from day one and it provides space for innovation.”
Consensus-based decision making models have been in the news lately as part of the Occupy movement, but they have a long history in progressive campaigns. According to Kazin, the process originated in the New Left movement of the 1960s. Solidarity’s non-hierarchical structure was also inspired by the national activist movement, which had a particular impact on the group’s founding.
Many early members of Solidarity also participated in the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests. “A number of students I spoke to referenced that as a sort of radicalizing turning point for them,” David-Heydemann said. “And that’s also when I think a lot of the students in the group wanted to switch to the non-hierarchical model.”
Throughout its history, GSC has maintained working relationships with other workers’ rights groups. As Geaney-Moore put it, GSC members recognize they can do the most good when they “help build coalitions and help progressive groups link up together.”
Through its Fair Food Campaign, GSC connects its members with students and labor activists hundreds of miles away. Historically, Solidarity members have served on the national steering committee of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Student Farmworker Alliance, one of the Coalition’s closest allies. The CIW is a group of Southern-Florida farmworkers who work together to gain better pay, bargaining power, and better working conditions. Both groups generally work by pressuring cafeterias, restaurants, food service providers, and more recently supermarkets to pay a few cents more per pound of produce.
Because the epicenter of the movement is so far away from many student volunteers, activists form local organizations to assist CIW. The local CIW ally, D.C. Fair Food, was largely founded last fall by GSC member Sarah Vazquez (COL ‘13), along with several recent graduates. “We definitely derive a lot of energy from GSC, but we’re definitely a community based organization,” Vazquez said.
Throughout the year, GSC members work out of the spotlight to build relationships and community with employees on campus. Every Friday at 6 a.m., Solidarity members trek out to the GUTS bus stops to serve free hot breakfast and coffee to employees leaving the night shift and arriving at work in the morning. About twice a semester, they throw their barbeques where workers may bring children and family members to enjoy time on campus outside of their shifts.
When a Leo’s worker’s house burned to the ground in 2008, GSC was first to the punch with their own support. They also published a letter in campus media outlets requesting material and financial contributions from the larger Georgetown community.
GSC maintains a significant behind-the-scenes presence, working to keep the University accountable for workers’ rights. According to David-Heydemann, GSC members served on the committee that wrote the University Just Employment Policy in the summer after the Living Wage Campaign. Heydemann herself sat on Advisory Council on Business Practices, which was tasked with overseeing the policy’s implementation. In February 2006, GSC members also protested outside a closed meeting of the ACBP. The University failed to include any subcontracted workers, despite a previous commitment to seat them on the committee.
As Geaney-Moore put it, “Georgetown has Jesuit and just generally ethical ideals. … We push them on the basis of their ideals.”
In January 2011, a small group of Leo’s Aramark workers gathered with union organizers and campus supporters at All Souls Church, Unitarian in Columbia Heights. It was the first open discussion among employee organizers about the possibility of forming a union.
This was a campaign that built on the experience of every previous GSC function, and challenged the conventional thought on the capability of student-organizers in the labor movement. “We couldn’t have done this campaign without the Living Wage [Campaign],” Bull said.
During the Aramark campaign, GSC sought to correct some of the flaws they recognized in the Living Wage hunger strike. “One of the things we could have done better was to position the workers more front and center,” Cisneros said.
The push to unionize the Aramark workers originated in conversations between Solidarity and Leo’s workers. “One of the hallmarks of the Solidarity Committee is that we try to spend a lot of time talking to workers,” said Geaney-Moore. “Just as a general principle that workers on campus are a part of the community that tend to be forgotten … and we don’t think that’s a good idea—we think they should be embraced.”
Solidarity’s unionization campaigns often mean bridging racial and class divides between workers and students. Although a traditionally difficult task for inexperienced organizers, this usually does not present a problem for the GSC volunteers and their allies. “The [workers] have bluntly said to us that they don’t care if we’re white or black, or Georgetown students or not,” Geaney-Moore said. “They really care that we care about what they want.”
Donte Crestwell, a Leo’s worker, attested to the unifying power of the organizers’ common goals. “I mean, we see each other as equals, regardless of your background and upbringing,” he said. “Honestly, when we sit down, we’re all for the same cause.”
Working conditions at Leo’s and the other Aramark-run establishments—including the Hoya Court restaurants and Cosi—were harsh and hostile. “[The management] called you a lot of names,” Crestwell said. According to him, management had cut back the work week to 37.5 hours in an attempt to save money, and this made it hard for employees to make ends meet. “They were like ‘that’s the new 40.’ They were going down to at least 35 [hours per week].”
Raises were miniscule. “People were like, ‘I’m a 25 year veteran and I got a 12 cent raise?’” Crestwell said. GSC members, cognizant of low pay and subpar working conditions, began to approach a small number of employees with the idea of organizing the workers.
“We’re very, very careful about this process,” said Geaney-Moore, who was heavily involved in the campaign. “Because unfortunately it’s true in this country that workers tend to be disciplined and punished by companies for standing up for their rights.”
GSC approached Leo’s workers slowly and deliberately. Students’ supporters were approached on a personal basis.
“We couldn’t come out and say “we’re starting a union,’” Crestwell said, “because it was very dangerous to say that word on the job … your work would get terminated.” So, he and a few other employees tapped into discontent among the workers, asking them about their feelings towards management and the work environment.
GSC secretly pulled in members from other campus organizations, including the College Democrats, MECHA, and the NAACP, among others. Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS ’12), then President of the College Democrats, says her involvement with the unionization push was one of the most rewarding experiences she has had on campus.
“Every week I looked forward to the [unionization] meetings we had because it was students and workers and professors and Jesuits and we were all in these rooms together, talking about the ideas we had to make Georgetown a better place and more supportive of our workers.”
Just before Christmas break of last year, the GSC student-activists organized a meeting with organizers from Unite Here!, an international union comprised of workers from an array of industries. A small number of Leo’s workers and professors was in attendance. They decided on a “blitz”—a 48-hour push to sign as many workers as possible on to the idea of a union before management caught wind of the move.
It was a dangerous move for workers to agree to support the union. “We didn’t lie to them,” Crestwell said. “We had coworkers say ‘could I lose my job?’ and we were like ‘yeah.’”
Even so, he says his coworkers were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea. “It gave them hope,” he said. “It’s better to stand together.” By the end of the blitz, over 85% had signed pledges of support.
After gathering support from the Leo’s staff, a handful of activists and workers, including Crestwell and Geaney-Moore, took their case to management. Crestwell says they simply sat down, presented the list of supportive workers, announced their intentions and walked out.
While they waited for Aramark’s management to react, the students took the campaign public. They were met with an upwelling of support from the Georgetown community. Again, the history department released a statement in support of the movement; campus leaders and administration officials came out in support.
The administration even sent a letter to Aramark requesting they allow the workers to organize, pursuant to the University’s Just Employment Policy. Faced with multiple sources of pressure from the Hilltop, and confined by their official corporate policy of not being “pro- or anti-union,” Aramark had little choice but to capitulate.
“We thank the students and the staff of Georgetown because really without them, we wouldn’t have got as far,” Crestwell said. “Now we feel like we have a voice.”
The newly unionized employees are currently in their first contract negotiation with Aramark since the campaign, but Crestwell says their personal treatment on the job has improved. “If any repercussions come to you … it’s all documented. So if it’s like ‘this guy’s been late a lot of times’, we can document all the times you’ve been late,” Crestwell said. “Before that, it could be undocumented and that person would just have to suffer by himself.”
For Geaney-Moore, the Leo’s unionization was emblematic of GSC’s ideal campaign—one that mobilizes workers to improve their working situation in a sustainable way. “While the hunger strike was a successful thing that got a living wage … it’s not the real ace in the hole,” he said. “It’s not workers standing up for their rights in the same way.”
Although among the most dedicated and active groups at Georgetown, Solidarity keeps a relatively low profile and remains somewhat misunderstood.
“Sometimes GSC members can get a lot of flack for being crunchy granola hippies,” Kohnert-Yount said, “but I think that the thing we’re most proud of [are]… the things we’ve been able to do with the community to make it a better place—and I think that works speaks for itself.”