By Matt Girardi
May Day throughout much of the world is synonymous with a celebration of organized labor. To honor the Haymarket Affair, workers’ rights activists have long used May Day to highlight the continued fight against economic and social injustice that too many workers continue to face. This May Day, a number of student groups including the Progressive Student Union, Fair Jobs GW, Fossil Free GW, the YDSA, and Jewish Voice for Peace (amongst others) coalesced and planned a rally in Kogan plaza. Termed the “Rally for Fair Jobs”, its focus was intended to be the continued lack of security for too many GW Workers—both student and non-student. Since September 2018, Fair Jobs GW has campaigned on a series of 10 demands that they have named the “Fair Jobs Contract”. These demands range from recognizing the collective bargaining rights of all GW workers to ensuring accessible health care, clarifying overtime policies, ceasing GWs outsourcing practices, and ensuring that the university is paying all its workers a living wage. Taken altogether, if implemented, the Fair Jobs Contract would provide economic justice, security, and dignity for all GW Workers. If administration wants to show they understand and are willing to work with students to make the university an institution where the best and brightest and not just the children of the wealthiest can thrive, it should take note of the demands of the activists that were in Kogan and move towards adopting the recommendations of the Fair Jobs Contract- particularly in respect to collective bargaining.
While the administration recently took some steps in the right direction by working with the Student Association to lower costs of laundry, printing, and renting spaces, it has some way to go before GW becomes affordable and accessible to every one of the students who call this campus home. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing continued concerns by both student and non-student GW workers, administration has continued to block Workers’ Rights by partnering with the Trump Administration’s National Labor Relations Board to stop graduate students from unionizing and launched sustained efforts to stop Resident Advisor unionization. It has continued to use temporary hires to fill gaps in employment, relies on third party contractors to undercut efforts at solidarity and unionization by direct staff and continues to not move on adopting a UPASS program that would significantly reduce costs for GW workers. To add insult to injury, after sustained efforts by administration to undermine Resident Advisor Unionization efforts, it made promises of increased transparency and cooperation between management and RAs, and then announced sweeping changes to the RA program.
The surprise announcement included the requirement of additional work hours, random roommates for some RAs, and the transition from a cash stipend to a fully covered meal plan. To top it all off, the CSE announced the changes after the housing application deadline passed for most upperclassmen, so many returning RAs were stuck choosing between signing the unexpected contract or paying the full cost of housing after all their potential roommates already established housing plans for the coming year. One Resident Advisor, speaking on anonymity for fear of their job, remarked that “[this] seemingly unfair rollout onto next year’s staff, particularly veteran RAs returning to the role, raises a serious question – why is upper management exclusively deciding what is best for the program and its workers? RAs depend on their stipend to accommodate the cost of not only food but also clothing, books, tuition, and a healthy social life. Without any say in the process, students complied as the CSE bound their income to GW-sponsored dining establishments while decreasing their flexibility to fit other jobs into their already busy schedules.”
Ironically and sadly, by reneging on their promise of additional cooperation and transparency with RAs and transitioning their wages into meal plans, the CSE has magnified the absurdity of the insecurity at the 59th wealthiest university in North America: nearly 40 percent of its student body, and even its own Resident Advisors, cannot even afford to consistently eat three meals a day.
Nonetheless, according to administration, GW student workers can have their concerns taken seriously by administration without forming a union. In fact, after Graduate Students advocating for unionization known as “GW Grad Students United” repeatedly requested to meet with President LeBlanc, they were met with a response by Provost Forrest Maltzman where he opined “Although I do appreciate that unions have made important contributions in many industries and over time, I view our graduate students as primarily students. Nor do I believe it is appropriate to utilize a collective bargaining process to shape the graduate student experience.”
While Provost Maltzman is entitled to that opinion, it is difficult to not to see that the bigger picture is missed in his response. In the words of the aforementioned (anonymous) RA: “When university employment determines so much of one’s livelihood, students deserve a seat at the negotiating table.” After all, unionization and collective bargaining efforts are not about setting up conflicts: they are about allowing workers to create a collective voice that no individual, no one worker, and no one Provost could provide. Only through that collective, united voice can workers engage in a fair, meaningful, and equitable dialogue with management. Even in the administration’s Faculty-Staff culture survey, a theme of “inadequate faculty and staff appreciation, recognition and care” was noted as a major hindrance to development of a healthy campus culture. If administration wants to act on that survey, if it wants to cast aside old stereotype of GW being a school of, by, and for elites, and if it truly wants to tap into the energy of the workers and young people who do their best to make this school run every day, it should work with the people who have been working for them. This May Day, workers were out, about, and ready to engage. Will the administration finally be willing to reciprocate? We can only hope so.
Note: When contacted, Fair Jobs GWU responded “PSU and the Fair Jobs campaign support grad student unionization efforts, and when there was an active movement to unionize RAs, we supported those efforts as well.” Grad Students United did not return immediately a request to comment on student unionization efforts.
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