Students & Workers in Solidarity

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Posted by Students and Workers in Solidarity on April 29, 2011 at 2:24 AM

A Testimony by Laura Emiko Soltis

April 28, 2011

 

 

My name is Emiko. I was one of the sevenstudents who was arrested on Monday evening for sitting in a tent in theQuadrangle. I am a fifth year PhD candidate at Emory University, and it is as amember of this beloved community that I am writing a response to PresidentWagner’s two statements regarding the “protest issue” on campus. As I do nothave the privilege of having an All Emorybutton on my email account or the ability to post my statement on the home pageof Emory’s website, I must rely on the good will of friends, colleagues, andstrangers to communicate this message to the wider public. Thank you very muchfor taking the time to read this statement and for your willingness to evaluatecritically both sides of this issue.

 

First and foremost, it is necessary to clarifywho we are as members of Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS), theprinciples we stand for, and why we are engaging in collective action. SWS is astudent organization that seeks only to speak as students in our capacity andresponsibilities as students. We do not claim to speak for workers, who havevoices and the capacity to speak for themselves. We are a democratic,non-hierarchical, autonomous organization that takes Emory’s mission of ethicalengagement, courageous inquiry, and knowledge in the service of humanity to bethe cornerstone of our collective efforts. Moreover, the principles enshrinedin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights make up a large part of the deepwell from which we all draw our inspiration. Individual members also draw upontheir own moral and religious beliefs to guide their actions in SWS.

 

SWS was formed in January 2010 in response to anumber of food service workers who, at great risk to themselves, began sharingpersonal accounts of disrespect and intimidation at work. In theseconversations between Emory students and food service workers, students learnedthat the workers who expressed interest in joining a union were being targetedby their supervisors and that the contracted food-service provider, Sodexo, hadinitiated mandatory meetings at Emory’s campus facilities that were billed asinformative sessions on unions. While technically legal, workers shared thatthese meetings effectively served as veiled threats against workers to preventthem from seeking union representation. The students of the newly formed SWS,while concerned about Sodexo employees specifically, soon realized that therewas a larger structural issue at Emory that allowed such blatant offenses ofEmory’s core values to take place- the issue of sub-contracted labor. Thestudents of SWS began researching Emory’s labor policies and talking to manydifferent types of workers on campus, and we found that Emory’s current laborpolicies maintain a discriminatory two-tier labor system on campus. On one tierare direct employees hired by Emory, who enjoy protection under Emory’s Code ofBusiness Ethics and Conduct, certain benefits, and access to Emory’s EmployeeCouncil. On the lower tier are sub-contracted workers, who are employed by acompany that is contracted by Emory University to provide certain campusservices. These workers are excluded from the rights and responsibilitiesoutlined in Emory’s Code of Business Ethics, receive a fraction of the benefitsafforded to Emory employees, and do not have any type of forum to address thequality of their workplace environment on the grounds of Emory’s campus. Wefelt that in our capacity as students, we were ethically and physically boundto ensuring the well being of those who prepare and serve us the food whichnourishes our bodies, which of course, makes all of our academic, intellectual,social and professional endeavors possible.

 

In March of 2010, we thus set forth our demandsfor the Emory Administration:

 

1) Implement a Labor Code of Conduct that wouldguide Emory’s ethical responsibilities to ensure the health, rights, and wellbeing of all direct and sub-contracted employees

 

2) Form a President’s Commission on the Statusof Labor which, on equal standing with other President’s Commissions designedto protect the rights of vulnerable populations on campus due to race andethnicity, gender, or sexuality, would oversee the Labor Code of Conduct andserve as an independent, investigative and reporting body that would beaccountable to the Emory community.

 

Members of SWS called on the EmoryAdministration to implement these demands by April 9, 2010. Despite a petitionof more than 1,000 signatures, and powerful testimonies of three brave foodservice workers[1]published in the Emory Wheel on March 22, 2010 in response to a misleadingeditorial[2] written by Sodexomarketing managers posing as food service workers, President Wagner and hiscabinet wrote a public letter which stated that “the employees in question are not Emory employees, andEmory does not control the labor policies of its contractors,” that Sodexo saysthat there is no problem, and that Emory has no responsibility toward itssubcontracted labor force.[3]This prompted a response from more than 78 faculty members, who co-signed aletter in the 2010 Commencement Edition of the Emory Wheel which condemned theAdministration’s disengagement from ethical responsibility and suggested thatSWS demands would be “useful starting points” in addressing inequalities inEmory’s labor policies.[4]

 

Yet, graduation came and went,summer rolled along, and the administration continued to insist that they donot bear responsibility for subcontracted workers. Over this past 2010/2011academic year, SWS continued to engage with food service workers and fellowstudents and held several public forums in which workers, again, at great riskto themselves and their families, testified to a workplace at Emory in whichdisrespect and disregard for employees have become standard practice. Maleworkers of color shared how they are often called “boy” by their supervisors.One young woman testified how her pregnant colleagues are continuously denied accessto chairs without appropriate documentation from personal physicians who mustbe approved by Sodexo. Story after story, President Wagner and hisadministration continued to evade the issue and failed to appear at theseforums upon frequent invitations by SWS to hear the testimonies of food serviceworkers who, despite being employees of Sodexo, have “Emory” embroidered ontheir uniforms.

 

Then, in September, members of SWScame across a report by Human Rights Watch, a pre-eminent human rightsorganization respected around the world, which documented in its report “AStrange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the UnitedStates by European Multinational Corporations” how Sodexo, the 21stlargest employer in the world, systematically violates international humanrights standards and U.S. labor law. Similarly, in January, SWS was notified ofyet another report by an independent human rights organization, TransAfricaForum, documenting Sodexo’s violations of international law in its practicesaround the globe, including the United States, the Dominican Republic,Guinea, Morocco and Colombia.

 

Committedto ethical standards as articulated in the Universal Declaration of HumanRights, and its foundational belief that all human beings are born free and equalin dignity and rights, that they are endowed with reason and conscience, andshould therefore act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood, the membersof SWS decided that our previous two demands were insufficient, and that Emorymust also cut its financial ties with a corporation with documented andsystematic human rights violations. We made these demands clear to theadministration on numerous occasions. As President Wagner accurately stated, wemet with administration officials for a total of nine times. What PresidentWagner failed to mention was that the officials he appointed to these meetingswere largely uninformed of Emory’s own subcontracted labor force, refused todisclose any information about Emory’s contract with Sodexo (which effectivelyprevented productive dialogue on progressive steps forward), and wereindifferent at best and instruments of deflection at worst.

 

Feeling disregarded andlegitimately frustrated, the members of SWS called for a public statement byPresident Wagner addressing Emory’s continued relationship with Sodexo andEmory’s responsibility to subcontracted workers. In early April, we invited PresidentWagner to address the university community on Wednesday, April 20that 12:40pm on the Emory Quad. Emory students, staff, faculty, food serviceworkers, and members of the Atlanta community were invited to the quad at noonto listen to student and community speakers and to await President Wagner’saddress. The highlight of the event was when Isaac Farris Jr., the nephew ofReverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and current president of The King Center,underscored the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and King’s dedicationto economic justice, reminding the crowd, and especially the young generation,that King was marching with sanitation workers who were demanding respect ashuman beings when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Moreover,Mr. Farris pledged the continued support of the Southern Christian LeadershipConference to the struggle for equality and human rights for all of Emory’sworkers.

 

As 12:40 arrived, Vice PresidentGary Hauk walked toward the crowd, and delivered an address on behalf of PresidentWagner. To the students’ disappointment, this statement was actually an emailthat President Wagner had sent to college sophomore and SWS member Alex Zavellthe night before. The statement, which is also available on Emory’s homepage,was yet another attempt at evasion of the issues of equality and ensuringdignified treatment of subcontracted workers on Emory’s campus. Instead ofaddressing these issues, President Wagner referred to Sodexo’s preferredresponse, that the “unrest” at Emory is due to the battle between SEIU (ServiceEmployees International Union) and Sodexo, inferring that the students of SWShave fallen victim to the conspiracy of big unions and are unwitting pawns ofSEIU. Again, I stress and personally testify that neither myself nor any memberof SWS is paid by, benefit from, or has any affiliation with SEIU whatsoever.We are graduate and undergraduate students from all corners of campus who areconcerned about the treatment of workers to whom Emory claims no ethicalresponsibility. Nowhere in President Wagner’s statement does he address workertestimonies of mistreatment or disrespect on Emory’s campus, actions Emory cantake to ensure healthy and safe work environments for all, or even how Emory’sethical commitments relate to its business relations with Sodexo.

 

Unsatisfied with an email responseand President Wagner’s continued evasion of the issues presented by SWS,students entered the administration building and walked up to the fourth floorto wait for President Wagner. The door to his office was locked, so we decidedto wait patiently in the hallway until President Wagner actually addressed theissues presented to him. There were many exchanges between the students, manyof whom were sitting and studying for finals, and various administration officialsincluding Vice President Gary Hauk and Senior VicePresident and Dean of Campus Life JohnFord. As 6:30pm arrived and the building was to be locked, still without wordfrom President Wagner, we were informed that we had to leave the building.Having waited 12 months since our last dialogue with President Wagner andfeeling the moral necessity of discussing Emory’s continued relationship withSodexo, we stated that we preferred to wait for President Wagner’s return tocampus. Over the next 90 minutes, we received conflicting statements andrequests from administration officials. Eventually, Emory police arrived andthreatened arrest if we did not leave the building. When we asked whyadministration officials were even considering arrests, which seemeddrastically inappropriate in response to our continued commitment to respectand non-violence, we were told that it was not safe for us to be in theadministration building overnight. When I personally asked if they thought itwas safer in county jail, I did not receive a response. However, presented witha promise that we could meet with President Wagner the following day, wedecided to exit the building. While outside, we asked Emory Police to explainto us the rules of why we could not stay in the building. We were instructedthat Emory buildings are not sites for free speech, but that the Quad was a“free speech space” on campus.

 

Provided thisinformation, the remaining students began to re-congregate, and slowly, whatbecame known as “Tent City” began to take shape. Other student organizationsbegan bringing in tents, and dozens of students began making the Quad a spacewhere people were free to study, play Frisbee, sleep, talk, laugh, sing, andwatch movies together, and most importantly, communicate SWS’s demands and theadministration’s official position with anyone who wanted to become informed.For the next six days and five nights, Tent City became a wonderful place.Faculty, staff, and students who were unable to join us came by and dropped offbagels, cookies, and even hot homemade meals. What was most unexpected,however, is that news of this safe space also traveled through Emory’scafeterias and coffee shops, and Sodexo workers began making late night andearly morning visits to share their experiences at Emory and to get updates onthe President’s response. When we saw workers out on the other side of the Quadpreparing the stage for graduation ceremonies, we asked them if and when theyneeded us to move. They told us that we weren’t in the way and that we couldeasily stay through Wednesday, April 27th.

 

On Monday, April 25th,our sixth day on the Quad, we decided to hold an informal meeting to strategizefor the upcoming week. Then, unexpectedly, at around 6:30pm, Vice PresidentGary Hauk approached our meeting accompanied by grounds crew members and toldus we had “five minutes” to remove our things and evacuate the Quad. What hadtaken six days to build- a makeshift home with ten tents, food stations, andpeople’s overnight belongings and schoolwork- was supposed to be removed infive minutes. As SWS was never informed in the six days of being on the Quadthat it was restricted property or that the Tent City was in violation offacility usage policies, we asked Vice President Hauk why we were beingremoved. He then presented us with a questionable document that stated auniversity policy that prevented us from being on the Quad. Within moments ofthis initial notification, the grounds crew workers were instructed to move in,and they began disassembling tents and forcibly removing students’ personalproperty along with the tents. We were all very confused and requested that webe given the opportunity to remove our own belongings. The grounds crew wasinstructed to stop dismantling for the time being while students gathered theirthings. An Emory Law School alumnus who was present read over the document thatVice President Hauk had provided and noted how the policy did not apply.Conversations concerning the legality of forced removal took up much of thetime between 7:00pm and 7:45pm. During this time, grounds crew membersproceeded to dismantle all but three remaining tents. President Wagner’s claimin his public letter that “studentswere given every invitation on Monday evening to move their tents and otherbelongings on their own” and that there was “a clear choice on the part of thestudents” cannot be considered true statements. We were given several conflictingdemands: first, we were told to leave the grass; then to just leave the tents;then we were told there would not be consequences if the tents were removed andstudents stayed on the grass. It was approximately 7:45pm when students noticedthat several Emory Police cars had pulled up and approximately 15-20 officers wereat the scene. To us, the presence of so many police appeared again to be anexcessive show of force to a peaceful gathering of students who were concernedabout the well being of fellow community members- the people who serve us food.

 

All of the students present werefaced with a decision: leave in the face of unnecessary aggression andinconsistent demands, or stand our ground and continue to ask the questionsthat deserved honest answers. Most of the undergrads, faced with finals thefollowing day, left the tents and joined in a large circle to support anyonewho decided to stay. I soon found myself in the company of six others, three otherEmory grad students and three brave students from Georgia State and GeorgiaTech who had joined our Tent City. They too, have Sodexo on their campuses andhave likewise heard from workers about their mistreatment, and wanted to show solidarityin our efforts. A thousand things came to my mind- I had been at Emory for morethan half of my adult life, I’d taught more than 40 students on this campus asa graduate instructor, I’d served on the President’s Commission on Race andEthnicity, I had led a health and human rights organization for three years, Ihad sung with choirs at numerous fundraising dinners for Campaign Emory behindPresident Wagner, and most importantly, I had developed friendships withhundreds of my fellow students, my professors, secretaries, janitors, busdrivers, security guards at the library, and food service workers. I loved thiscommunity. I did not want to go to jail. President Wagner testified that hisdecision to arrest us was one of the hardest decisions of his professionalcareer. President Wagner received his PhD in 1984, the year I was born. I wasnow at Emory trying to receive mine. It is fair to say that my decision to sitdown and link arms with six other students as we watched armed policemen andwomen approach our flimsy green tent was the hardest decision of my life. Withthe same voice with which I wholeheartedly sang to encourage donors to givegenerously to Emory University, I began singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

 

Many of us have seen the videos. Wewere seven students sitting in a circle, singing to keep our spirits up. Myfriend Joe, a graduate student in Philosophy, was on his knees praying. He wasthe first one the police pulled out of the tent and put in handcuffs. The nextwas Andrea, a second year graduate student in Public Health. I was third. Mikewas next, he’s a grad student at Georgia Tech studying computer science.Amariah was the fifth student removed, a student from Georgia State who isfighting another battle against budget cuts at public universities. Roger andChris were the last two students. Two grown men fully embracing as the policecame to separate them. We were all handcuffed and put in the back seats of thesquad cars. I happened to be buckled up. Andrea and Amariah were not. In threeseparate cars, the seven of us were driven to the DeKalb County Jail. Wearrived at approximately 8:30pm. The four men entered the prison in one door,the three of us women in another. We would not see each other again until noonthe following day. Andrea, Amariah, and I were put in a small jail cell withabout 18 other women. The next fourteen hours were the longest fourteen hours Ihave ever experienced. A few of us sat on metal benches, the rest on theconcrete floor. An overflowing toilet sat open in the corner of the cell. Thebright fluorescent lights and the loud bang of the mechanical door that made usjump every time it opened or closed prevented even a minute of sleep. I waitedsix hours to make my first phone call. I was pulled out of the cell to give myfingerprints five separate times. I had my second mug shot taken at 3:30am. Iwas given a TB skin test and underwent a pregnancy test. On the other side, themen had to strip naked, squat, and cough. It was extremely cold, and most of uswere wearing t-shirts or tank tops. Yet, somehow we managed to have greatconversations with the other women, who were all young women of color. Together, we shared in laughter, storytelling, and grouphuddles to keep warm. Seeing so much beauty and humanity in a space designedspecifically to de-humanize and suppress reignited a fire deep within me. Yet,in the extreme highs and lows of emotion I felt throughout that night, all Icould think was, “So this is where courageous inquiry leads.”

 

By 2:00pm on Tuesday, all seven of uswere either back on campus or at our homes. We gathered together again at6:30pm to give an informal press conference and vigil at the steps of theadministration building. The support from the Emory community has beentremendous. All of us have received emails and letters of support, mainlypertaining to our arrests. One professor shared with us this story:

 

On the way to the vigil tonight, I tried to explainto my nine-year old son that we were going to a "pep rally" at Emorybecause two of my students, Andrea Nicholls and Roger Sikes, were arrested lastnight.  They were opposed to a University "policy" and weretrying to get Emory's "Principal" to change the policy and improveconditions for some of the people who work at Emory.  When they hadtrouble having a satisfactory discussion with the Principal, they decided topitch tents on the quad and demonstrate peacefully until they could get hisattention.

 

"So why were they arrested, Mama?" 

"Do you know what trespassing means,sweetie?"

"Yeah, its like if I go into somebody else'shouse without being invited."

"Right, after 5 days, the Principaldecided to end the demonstration by asking the police to remove them from thequad and charge them with Criminal Trespassing."

"But Mama, howcan they trespass at their own school?"

 

While many people, including myself, arewondering the same question, the students who were arrested did not getarrested just for the thrill or infamy of getting arrested. We were arrestedbecause we were asking the questions that the administration doesn’t want us toask. We were arrested because our presence was bringing attention to Emory’sglaring hypocrisy of claiming ethical engagement with the world while throwingin jail those students who seek only to ensure the human rights of all membersof our campus community. This hypocritical stance can no longer sustain itself.People are now beginning to ask, if Emorytreats its own students with such disrespect and unwarranted aggression, how dothey treat workers for whom they claim no responsibility?

 

The ninety-year old Reverend Joseph Lowery,known as the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement” and third president of theSouthern Christian Leadership Conference, wrote a letter in support of theefforts of Students and Workers in Solidarity. In his letter, which was readaloud by Helen Butler on his behalf at the press conference, he said:

 

“While I cannot be here today in person, I am with you in spirit. I amproud of the courage you show to stand with the people that prepare and serveyou food every day. With each new generation, the students continue thetradition we started in the Civil Rights Movement not to rest until there isjustice for all. President Wagner, I call upon you to uphold your moralresponsibility not only for the students, but for the entire community. Onceagain, in times of moral upheaval, it is students that point us toward theright course of action.”

 

On behalf of the students who were arrested on Monday and the members of SWS, I encourage the Emory community to direct itsconcern and attention to the issue for which SWS has always existed: to ensurethat Emory extends its ethical leadership to address the inequalities of ourcurrent sub-contracted labor policy. As a community, we must thereforerespectfully, but forcefully demand that President Wagner:

 

1)   Attend agood faith meeting with representatives of Students and Workers in Solidarityin order to identify reasonable and immediate measures to increase equitybetween direct and subcontracted employees. Such measures could include:

a.    Eliminationof the extra $150 that “non-Emory employees, contractors or vendors” must payin annual parking rates as compared to salaried faculty and administrators oncampus; or make the MARTA passes provided free of charge to Emory employeesavailable to subcontracted employees, or at least at Emory’s discountedpurchase rate of $15 per month.

b.    Establishmentof a President’s Commission on the Status of Labor that is on par with thethree established commissions, in which subcontracted workers would have aninstitutional mechanism where their voices and concerns would be given duerespect and consideration.

 

2)   Implementa Labor Code of Conduct that would apply to a new contract with Sodexo or analternate food service provider. Georgetown University’s Just Employment Policy could serve as a model of a newsubcontracted labor policy. In the case where Emory changes food serviceproviders, all current Sodexo employees must be rehired, as is common practicein the university food service industry.

 

3)   Considercutting institutional ties with Sodexo in light of numerous reports of itshuman rights violations around the world and its unacceptable behavior at Emoryin the past that puts Emory’s reputation into disrepute.

 

4)   Participatein a public forum with four representatives of SWS to address steps Emory willtake to ensure that the treatment of subcontracted workers are in line withEmory’s high ethical standards. The Global Health Department at the School ofPublic Health has expressed interest in hosting such a forum before the 2011Commencement ceremonies.

 

I extend my most heartfelt thanks for the community’s concern for the health andwell being of us seven students during one of the most trying days of ourlives. I invite the community to direct that same compassion to all of theworkers on this campus whose hard work too often goes unnoticed. Together, allof us are Emory. The creation of a community where every member’s human rightsand dignity are respected is indeed where courageous inquiry shall one day lead.

[1]http://www.emorywheel.com/detail.php?n=28190

[2]http://www.emorywheel.com/detail.php?n=28104

[3]http://www.emorywheel.com/detail.php?n=28258

[4]http://www.emorywheel.com/detail.php?n=28455

 


 



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