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A labor of love: Kalmanovitz and the fight for labor rights

October 18, 2012


Several groups of men stand scattered around the Home Depot parking lot on a chilly October morning in Brentwood. They are not the usual customers looking to redecorate their homes or buy gardening supplies, but rather day laborers testing their luck trying to get a job for the day.

“We come here every day of the week. Sometimes, if we have luck, we get a job for two or three days,” Alfredo said in timid Spanish. He came illegally to the U.S. from El Salvador 20 years ago and has since stayed in D.C. earning meager wages as a day laborer. Due to his status as an undocumented immigrant, he did not offer his full name.

According to the National Employment Law Project, even though the economic recovery since the late-2008 recession has recuperated 3.3 million jobs out of the 8.1 million lost, low-skill, low-wage jobs constituted 58 percent of these gains.

“The economy is transforming and so is the American workplace, with the rise in casual and part-time labor, a decline in middle-income jobs, and a long-term transition from manufacturing to service-sector jobs,” explained Jennifer Luff, the Research Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

The Kalmanovitz Initiative is a Georgetown-based think-tank and advocacy group which also sponsors regular service outings such as the Day Laborers Exchange. The initiative supports research on issues of increasing national significance—how labor will fit into the 21st century economy.

“The American labor movement, like its counterparts around the world, is transforming in response to these changes, and it’s a fascinating moment to study and think about what role workers can and should play in governing their workplaces and the economy,” Luff said.

According to Denise Brennan, chair of the Department of Anthropology and Faculty Fellow of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, these changes in production and labor have largely left migrant workers behind.

“In today’s recessionary economy, what has become normalized are low-wages, no overtime, unprotected working conditions, job insecurity, and no benefits,” Brennan said. “This has become expected and has been framed as an accepted business practice. And it is unacceptable.”

The Day Laborer Exchange is one of the many programs offered by the Kalmanovitz Initiative which seeks to mitigate these problems by carrying out its mission of developing “creative ideas and practical solutions for working people that are grounded in a commitment to justice, democracy, and the common good.”

Standing next to Alfredo is Georgetown student Jamie Ramirez (COL’15). He holds a small booklet that reads “Basic English for Day Laborers—Inglés Básico para Jornaleros.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, Ramirez joins a few other Georgetown students to inform workers of their rights and teach them survival English through the Kalmanovitz Initiative’s Day Laborer Exchange Program.

“These are people that are trying to make it out in America. They are away from their families, and there’s also a lot of language barriers. They need help,” Ramirez said.

Although Georgetown holds itself to a high standard of labor justice through the Just Employment Policy, students interested in labor rights complain that the University’s academic offerings in this area tend to be limited.

“In my experiences as a Georgetown student, I’ve found that there are few academic and extracurricular resources to seriously engage with worker justice,” said Tessa Pulaski (SFS ’15), a board member of Hoyas for Immigrant Rights. “However, I have found an opportunity through the KI that has allowed me to pursue real advocacy opportunities regarding labor rights.”

The Kalmanovitz Initiative was launched in the fall of 2009 with a gift of $5 million from the Kalmanovitz Charitable Foundation, which was established in 1987 after the death of Paul Kalmanovitz, a wealthy brewery owner and real estate developer.

“One of the reasons they chose Georgetown is because part of the University’s mission is a commitment to social justice, and these concerns for labor, labor unions, for the working poor, for people that might not be able to defend for themselves,” said Nick Wertsch (COL ’09), Program Coordinator for the KI.

The Kalmanovitz Initiative has become an integral part of the University’s administration, and runs projects focusing on “empowering leaders” and “incubating innovation.”

Service projects offered to students by the Initiative include the Day Laborer Exchange Program, the Domestic Worker Outreach Program, and an Alternative Spring Break trip focused on worker justice.

“The Kalmanovitz Initiative does a great job at engaging students with labor issues and issues relevant to the working poor, students who might not necessarily originally be drawn to those issues,” said Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS ’13), the Vice President of Georgetown University Student Association and longtime member of Georgetown Solidarity Committee.

Kohnert-Yount was part of an International Trade class that incorporated the Day Laborer Exchange as part of its Community Based Learning component, a partnership put forward by Kalmanovitz.

Besides offering service opportunities to students, the Kalmanovitz Initiative also sponsors research and activism, which distinguishes it from similar organizations, such as the Center for Social Justice.

“What I think differentiates us with a lot of programs at the CSJ is that there is a large advocacy component to what we do,” Wertsch said. “We are not just trying to create service opportunities where a student shows up, puts out their time and that’s sort of the end of it. In a lot of ways we are trying to encourage students to take a more active role around these issues.”

With this objective in mind, the Kalmanovitz Initiative also offers a Practitioner Fellowship Program, Faculty Summer Research Grants, and an Undergraduate Fellowship Program.

“A lot of our work concerns bringing together practitioners, researchers, and students,” said Joseph McCartin, Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative. “I think our special mission is to bridge the gulf between the real world and the university and these issues.”

To Donald Cohen, a Practitioner Fellow of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, one of the ways to bridge this gulf is through research.

“We know that one of the most important solutions is to give workers power to negotiate with owners and those rights are being eroded,” Cohen wrote in an email to the Voice. “More research and discussion is essential if we are to find new ideas and educate the public.”

***

In dealing with sensitive issues such as worker movements and labor rights, education plays an essential role in instructing future leaders on how to deal with these concerns. Public approval of labor unions in the U.S. remains at a historical low, with only 52 percent of the population having a favorable opinion of them, according to a Gallup poll released in August.

“People, particularly in the United States, don’t really support the notion of unionization or they look at it as something which decreases efficiency,” said Katerina Downward (SFS ‘14), an active member of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee. “They don’t really understand the nuances of the importance of the right to unionize, and the integrity of labor, how important respect for the workplace is in actually creating a harmonious environment.” [Full disclosure: Downward is a Voice staffer.]

The Kalmanovitz Initiative identifies 15 courses related to labor offered by the University. Among these are Anthropology classes focused on the correlation between migration and labor rights, and others related to the regulation of the workforce in the global economy.

Over the past few years, student movements advocating for labor rights on campus, such as the campaign to unionize Leo’s workers and the campaign to terminate the University’s sportswear contract with Adidas, have also increased the visibility of these issues on campus.

At the same time, however, students and activists identify a disconnect between the level of student interest in labor justice and the number of academic offerings in the subject, especially for an institution that prides itself in promoting the Jesuit ideal of “Women and Men for others.”

Pedro Cruz, a Ph.D. student at Georgetown and Graduate Assistant at the Kalmanovitz Initiative, sees a need for increased curricular commitment to labor issues.

“The United States for the longest time was the major industrial nation in the planet and has a great history of labor organizing,” Cruz said. “I think there should be more courses in the curriculum that inform about these issues, not only at the U.S. level but also at the global level. That would be a field many students in Georgetown would be interested to know more about.”

While the College and the School of Foreign Service offer students the opportunity to focus their studies in areas such as Education or Justice and Peace Studies through minors and certificates, there is no comparable offering for students interested in labor rights.

Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations enrolls over 900 undergraduate students who focus their studies on issues of domestic and international labor, making it the only school in the United States specifically devoted to this field at the undergraduate level. Other institutions offer programs in Industrial and Labor Relations, including New York University, Rutgers University, and the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Kalmanovitz Initiative is working to change Georgetown’s academic approach to labor rights, and is examining creating a program similar to those that Georgetown’s peer institutions offer.

“A number of the faculty who teaches labor related courses have begun to talk among each other about creating some kind of formal recognition for people who want to do this kind of study,” said McCartin.

According to McCartin, faculty from across the four schools have already shown interest in constructing the program.

“It’s just a matter of getting the momentum to actually do it,” explains McCartin.

“[Awareness of labor rights] is definitely limited on campus,” Pulaski said. “A lot of the classes don’t really highlight anything about the workers’ rights. The University needs to make a much better job focusing on that.”

Downward recognizes the need to increase the number of courses dedicated to labor rights, but she also takes issue with the  way that some courses are taught.

“Economic courses at Georgetown really all propel the same agenda of presenting things in such an academic way that you don’t see the human face to economics, which is labor,” she said.

To Pulaski, the University has a responsibility to promote student activism in such issues as labor rights.

“The campus needs to put the Jesuit values into action a lot more. I always struggle with learning about social justice and then not being able to see it,” she added. “Georgetown, especially the SFS, is a very internationally-minded place where people are not even willing to go to Columbia Heights or Petworth. People love to sit in the ivory tower and theorize about poverty in Africa.”

***

For McCartin, Georgetown already demonstrates a progressive approach toward labor rights.

“Georgetown is really ahead of the curve compared to many other colleges and universities in starting to grapple these issues,” he said. “In one way, you can see this in the University’s own labor policies with its own workers; it has gotten very progressive policies in those areas.”

Georgetown is also the only member of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities that has instituted a labor standard as stringent as Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy, a policy “committed to providing fair and competitive compensation packages for University employees and full-time contract workers who provide services on its campuses.”

On Oct. 13, representatives from the Kalmanovitz Initiative and the University gathered with other members of the AJCU to discuss the possibility of the association adopting similar just employment guidelines.

“We believe that a just employment policy that is in line with the Jesuit values, that prioritize how people are treated, should be the heart of any school’s policy,” Wertsch said.

***

As a relatively young undertaking, Kalmanovitz’s main challenge has been to increase its visibility on campus. Even though membership in the Kalmanovitz Initiative has doubled since its founding and enrollment now stands at 40 people, this figure is miniscule compared to the over 550 students who participate in weekly tutoring and mentoring activities in the city as part of programs such as D.C. Reads and D.C. Schools.

“I would like to see campus awareness of the Kalmanovitz Initiative expand, because I think they are an incredible resource on campus,” said Erin Riordan (COL ‘15), member of GSC. “A lot of students aren’t necessarily aware of the work they do or the opportunities that exist through the KI.”

One of the factors that has greatly hindered the expansion of the KI in the past few years has been the insufficient number of faculty members interested in participating in the project.

“It’s going to be interesting to see in the next few years how they establish a foothold on campus—which they already have—and they grow from there,” Kohnert-Yount said.

In the past two years, the Kalmanovitz Initiative has accepted two to three student fellows a year, and this year its directors expect to expand its research opportunities to twice as many students.

“Part of our goal is to get more faculty and more alumni at Georgetown involved in our work. The more people from the community who are willing to work as mentors for these programs, the more students we could involve in them,” McCartin said.

However, another problem lies in the nature of the specific programs themselves. When interacting directly with workers, more volunteers are not necessarily better, as is the case of the Day Laborer Exchange Program and the Domestic Worker Outreach Program.

“If we took larger numbers of students, it can throw off the dynamic at the program site if too many students are trying to approach workers at the same time,” Wertsch said. “Sometimes smaller groups are able to more effectively interact with workers in this kind of a setting, and this has an impact on the number of spots in the program.”

***

As the Kalmanovitz Initiative enters its fourth year at the University, it looks forward to expanding its engagement with the Harrison Institute for Public Law, furthering the collaboration with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University Law School, and continuing to promote the implementation of a Jesuit Just Employment Policy.

“I am very optimistic of this beginning. We are only three years old, and I think that it has expanded pretty quickly, developing a lot of useful avenues of engagement for people,” says McCartin. “I am optimistic that this will grow as we go forward.”

Watching the students get into the van that will take them back to Georgetown, Alfredo smiles with satisfaction.

“You know, even though I’m too old to start learning English now, I like it when you [students] come here,” he said. “Sometimes it is good to be treated as a human being. There are many things to change in this country, but watching you come here gives me the hope that someday you’ll be standing in the place where Romney and Obama stand now, and will be advocating for the rights of people like me.”

Additional reporting by Gavin Bade and Connor Jones

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to include a statement of disclosure regarding Katerina Downward.



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