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Group advocates for worker respect

Many Brown students have limited relationships with University staff. They know Gail and Jose at the Ratty, or are vaguely aware of who cleans up the trashed lounges in their dorms after a weekend night, or have made friends with the woman at the Blue Room who toasts their onion bagels. While relationships between students and Brown staff may not be perfect, the general campus sentiment aspires to respect and equality — and one group, the Brown Student Labor Alliance, campaigns actively for the rights of University employees.

Spotted at Brown

A stroll past outdoor trash cans on Friday afternoon, dorm kitchens on Saturday morning or the Ratty omelet line at Sunday brunch would hint at a less than perfect relationship between those who attend the University and those who work for it. "I've seen people yell at the Ratty workers," said Aurora Durfee '10, and "everyone sees the Main Green and Wriston Quad, especially when it's nice out, covered in litter."

"I don't think people realize that their litter is someone else's burden," she added.

"I see more of people just completely ignoring and not thinking about the workers," said Matt Scult '10. "They're leaving trash all around, not really interacting with and saying hi to workers as they go through the dining hall."

While Durfee and Scult observe these issues, they both said inconsiderate actions are not the norm. "I don't know if there's a community ethos that is one way or another," Durfee said.

"I think the vast majority of the student population is respectful, but there's a small minority that I guess isn't," said Rachel Bloom '13. "And I know that the majority of people who are respectful do notice the minority." Bloom pointed to public forums such as the missed connections Web site Spotted at Brown, where students often call out other students for mistreating the staff.

Both Durfee and Bloom said their dorms' residents have good relationships with their custodians. In South Wayland, where Bloom lives, students "generally" clean any messes they make, she said.

But Bloom said there is more that Brown students can do. "I think it's important to make sure that the people who make this experience, for us, as good as it possibly can be, have a good experience themselves," she said.

"We're just elitist kids at an elitist school and these people are here to make our lives better or easier," Durfee said. "We should treat them as well as we can, because they deserve it."

Students stand up

While many students express hope that campus workers will be treated with respect, the Student Labor Alliance works to turn this hope into action. "Working is part of everyone's life," said SLA group member Rebecca Rast '13, "and everyone deserves a just workplace."

To move toward this vision, "Brown SLA works in solidarity with workers on campus, in the greater Providence community and globally," Rast said. "We really try to stand with workers all over the world who are connected to the Brown community."

The SLA consists of 15 to 20 members who work actively on its campaigns, and can garner the support of 30 to 40 members in one night to attend events, Rast said. "We have a pretty committed base," said SLA member Elizabeth Caldwell '12.

A committed base is necessary for the SLA to function, as the group works concurrently on several large campaigns. Currently, they are campaigning for the University's divestment from hotel management company HEI and for the relocation of Gala 2010, which is slated to be held at the Providence Westin hotel, where employees are on strike.

Another prominent SLA campaign addresses University contracts with Nike. The University is a member of the Designated Suppliers Program, which was created by the Worker Rights Consortium and requires that each member "abide by certain codes of conduct" when choosing suppliers for university-branded clothing, Caldwell said. Two Nike sweatshops in Honduras have been flagged recently for violations of this code when workers were not awarded proper severance pay.

"Nike still owes them over $2.1 million," Caldwell said. This week, the SLA is bringing workers from Honduras to a meeting with Brown's bookstore. "We're demanding that they terminate their contract" with Nike until workers receive just compensation, she said.

Other large campaigns in which the SLA is actively involved include United Students Against Sweatshops, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which advocates for low-wage workers throughout the state of Florida, and Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, a coalition working toward fair treatment in labor markets throughout the state.

More than just ‘making noise'

While the SLA works on many large-scale campaigns, it is also very involved in efforts for fair treatment of workers on College Hill. Last semester, the SLA worked with several on-campus organizations to ensure fair health care benefits in contract negotiations for Dining Services workers, Caldwell said.

"One of the big ways that we help work with workers when there are complaints is working directly with the union," Rast said. The SLA will often "take symbolic action," which includes everything from getting student signatures on workers rights petitions, like it did during the dining services contract negotiations, to raising awareness through teach-ins, Rast said.

The SLA checks in regularly with on-campus workers unions and maintains strong "relationships with workers on campus to see if things are going okay," Rast said.

Another important SLA campus campaign surrounds the recent announcement about library staff layoffs. "We're concerned that we don't really know where all these cuts are coming from. We know this isn't the end, and we don't want this to set a precedent for future layoffs," Caldwell said.

"It's sad that Brown is starting to cut these corners, because we can be this proud university that pays its workers well — we have been in the past," Rast said.

"The economic situation should never be an excuse for cutting corners" in the treatment of workers, Trupin added.

All of the campaigns in which the SLA is involved require relationships with the student body, other on-campus groups and the administration. The group maintains a strong relationship with the Third World Center, has worked with a handful of student groups — such as in the Open the Books campaign seeking budget transparency from the Corporation — and has a "pretty sustainable" relationship with the office of President Ruth Simmons, Caldwell said.

"People have a perception that we're just making noise to make noise," she said. "But we are willing to work through the designated bureaucracy when it's the right thing to do."

"And we always try to start there," Rast said.

Student awareness is another critical part of SLA efforts. "We want to centralize workers in our fight and not forget that we are students who have a privileged position at this university," Caldwell said. The SLA often explores the issue that students "don't always treat workers well," she added.

"We want to change the Brown environment so that there is more justice for workers … and equality between workers and students," Rast said.

Students interviewed by The Herald said they knew little about the SLA's efforts or other workers' rights activism on campus. Scult said he remembered "signing a couple petitions in the fall," but added that he had no other knowledge of SLA efforts.

"I have no idea what they're doing," Durfee said of the SLA, adding that she is surprised she does not hear much about activism for workers' rights because Brown is "such an active campus."

"I think that a lot of people are pretty much aware of poor conditions elsewhere," Bloom said. The lack of campus activism on such issues is "more of a sense of apathy, or ‘Why should I do anything?' " she added.


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