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Simon Liebling '12: Stand up for Dining Services

Brown students could stand to learn a lot from their peers at the University of California. Across the UC campuses last week, thousands of students walked out of classes alongside faculty and staff to protest the tuition hikes, budget cuts, furloughs and firings imposed by the administration in response to the economic crisis.

Students were driven to the streets by the threat of a $3,000 tuition hike. Professors said they joined the walkout to protest the academic impact of the budget cuts imposed by UC regents. But both stood in solidarity with the university employees' strike called for the same day, refusing to cross the picket lines of staff members locked in a contentious contract dispute with the UC administration — the same administration that provoked the student and faculty outcry. "Our problems are connected," one student organizer told the Daily Californian. "Our struggles have the same roots. ...Our solidarity cannot be cut."

The students at the University of California are discovering what our international contemporaries have known all along — that in times of economic difficulty administrators don't turn to tuition hikes, firings and budget cuts because they must but because victimizing students, faculty and staff offers the path of least resistance. Students and faculty are rarely adequately organized to mount a meaningful response, while staff are usually sufficiently estranged from the rest of the community that firing them doesn't elicit much in the way of outrage from anyone else.

What students, faculty and staff all have in common is that we're easy targets for financial recrimination during a recession, which is the foundation for the unity exemplified by the UC walkouts. Even those students able to say that their university experience has not meaningfully changed over the last year — that is, those students sufficiently privileged to be unconcerned about tuition hikes and inadequate financial aid packages — are driven to the coalition. They know that if they do not act, their disinterest and contentment empowers the University administration to victimize others, safe from any popular reaction. So even though we're all fighting back against different administrative initiatives, the connection between those proposals impels a similarly unified response.

Here at Brown, the opportunity to mount that response will come over the next week, as Brown Dining Services workers renegotiate a contract set to expire on Oct. 12. The University administration is trying to force through terms that would make a significant percentage of Dining Services employees pay more out of paycheck for health care while excluding all future hires from the current retirement plan afforded to Dining Services employees. The union also expects the University to demand a wage freeze, even though wages over the previous contract term failed to keep up with inflation.

The last time Dining Services contracts were up for negotiation, in 2006, community solidarity with Dining Services employees was ultimately critical in winning favorable terms for dining workers. Rallies in support of Dining Services drew hundreds of community members, while the City Council passed a resolution admonishing the Brown administration to deal more fairly with its employees. 100 BuDS student employees committed to honor Dining Services' threat to strike over Parents' Weekend, a possibility that proved embarrassing enough to compel the administration to capitulate.

The ongoing negotiations have yet to receive even a fraction of the popular attention they saw in 2006, and this time, the administration seems eager to exploit the estrangement of Dining Services employees from the rest of the community. That changes on Thursday at 4 p.m., when students, Dining Services workers and other community members will rally on the Main Green to demand that the Brown administration respect its employees' rights to health care and a living wage.

 In the meantime, take a moment to resist the administration's effort to keep its workers in the shadows and talk to one of the people who serve you food every day. Ask how they feel about their contracts and how the administration is treating them. And ask what it would mean to them to have you backing their efforts.

 The administration thinks that it can demand concessions from Dining Services workers because it believes it can treat them poorly with impunity, without any retaliation from the rest of the Brown community. We are all common victims of an administration that continues to put buildings before people because it faces no organized opposition to its priorities. Step up and support the Dining Services on Thursday to show our administration — as University of California students showed theirs — that the community is unified against their selfishness. Next time they won't be so quick to demand concessions from the rest of us.


Simon Liebling '12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at simon.liebling (at) gmail.com




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