Working for a cause on campus can be a frustrating experience: bureaucratic delays, unresponsive administrators and student apathy slow down the process. Turning to outside sources for help, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee has found allies in a local labor union and national politicians.
“As students, we don’t always have the power we’d like to have, and the workers don’t have that power,” Leah Wolfsthal (SFS ‘09), a GSC member, said. “We thought it would be a good idea to contact people who do have influence.”
The GSC is currently helping workers at University subcontractor P&R hold a card check. A card check is a process that allows workers to join a union, in this case Service Employees International Union District 32 of Local 23BJ, a local chapter of SEIU, if a majority sign union cards.
However, P&R, like most employers, is leery of the unionization process, and current law does not require card checks, only confidential ballots. Union advocates argue, though, that ballots open the door for employer intimidation. And at first, it seemed that the University was also standing in the way of letting uninionization through.
Wolfsthal, an intern in the office of Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), turned to her boss and his colleagues. His office prepared a letter, which was circulated among like-minded members of Congress, revised and eventually sent to University President John J. DeGioia with the support of 20 Democratic representatives. The letter said, in part, that “the right to organize, and collectively bargain, is an internationally recognized human right.”
Soon after, Georgetown announced its official policy of card-check neutrality and announced it was forming a card-check task force. Wolfsthal said she believes that this came partially in response to the Congressional letter.
Students are also working to directly support the efforts of SEIU to unionize P&R employees and Allied Security guards by facilitating meetings with union organizers, providing solidarity through shared activities and simply getting to know individual workers.
“We didn’t come to campus looking for students to be organizing,” Rich Gibson, the main organizer at SEIU District 32, Local 23BJ, said. “Students found a problem and tried to figure out how they could solve it. A lot of it was putting pressure on administrators, but also organizing workers so that they can have a seat at the table where decisions about their lives are made.”
Geoff Piquette (SFS ‘06), a GSC member who spent last summer and fall working as a SEIU organizer, noted that the relationship is two-way: GSC helps the union organize, and the union helps legitimize GSC.
“GSC gets a bad rap about being this radical splinter group on campus,” Piquette said. “Solidarity is here to support the labor movement in general and labor on campus. I think that’s very mainstream. That letter that 12 congressional members sent to DeGioia is mainstream democratic politics.”
Will the GSC and its allies push through the card-check? With student leaders able to bring national resources to bear on campus issues, the chance of success seems higher all the time.