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Labor Needs More Than Labor

How a workers’ movement at Georgetown University provides a template for the future of American labor.

The waves of demonstrators who thronged around and inside the Wisconsin capitol this winter could not stop Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature from passing a bill to curtail collective bargaining rights for public workers. But the massive support the unions drew from students, faculty, small farmers, and immigrant rights groups, among others, imparted an old lesson that progressives often forget: to advance its interests, labor needs to look less like an interest group and more like a moral cause that appeals to allies from outside the wage-earning class. In order to protect the gains unions have made and to have a chance to grow again, their partisans have to show how these groups will benefit the nation and not just themselves.

That strategy was essential to some of American labor’s most memorable achievements. A century ago, the horrific Triangle fire helped garment workers make a case for unions as well as safe workplaces. In the 1930s, auto and steel workers gained public sympathy when they struck for “industrial democracy” against autocratic employers. In the 1960s, the plight of low-wage, mostly Mexican-American farmworkers became a favorite cause of liberals.

This year at Georgetown University, another such labor moment occurred—in a modest but still instructive fashion. After a campaign that began in the muck of July, the roughly 200 men and women who work either at the student cafeteria or at one of a handful of campus fast-food outlets (including a Starbucks) are close to winning recognition from Aramark, their employer, whose $12 billion annual revenue makes it one the largest service providers in the nation. The workers, most of whom are black or Latino, have become members of Unite Here, the leading union in the culinary trades.

But they have not done it alone. Key organizers of the effort are undergraduates who belong to the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC), a group launched in the late 1990s to protest the miserable conditions in the Asian and Caribbean sweatshops where most of the garb plastered with the university’s name and mascot was made. Their effort to organize at Aramark-run facilities married personal witness and strategic cunning. GSC activists, in tandem with a small band of cafeteria workers, urged employees to narrate, either in Spanish or English, their tales of grievance: insulting pay raises that averaged well under 50 cents an hour, arbitrary changes of schedule, a lack of affordable health insurance.

One kitchen worker recounted how, in the winter 2010, after using up his few allowed days of leave, he burst his appendix. When a blizzard hit the capital city, he was still recuperating and made several phone calls to his supervisor, pleading for another day off. There was no response, and so, the employee trudged into work. That night, he was unable to make it home and had to spend a night in a nearby hotel without the medications his surgeon had prescribed.

As they gathered such stories, organizers were also assembling a sturdy coalition of campus supporters from outside the workplace. It included the sizeable student chapters of the NAACP and of College Democrats. Over the fall and early winter, individual professors met with individual workers to hear them testify about life on the job (I was among them). Fearing Aramark would fire a “troublemaker” or two to intimidate the others, these workers and their allies gathered in secret and off campus. Then, in January, on the Martin Luther King holiday, several workers told their personal stories in public at a packed meeting held in the basement of a local Unitarian church. Faculty allies stood up to recall that the preacher who has become the symbol of the civil rights movement was also a class-conscious reformer, assassinated while helping garbage workers organize a union.

By mid-March, over 80 percent of the Aramark employees had signed cards declaring that they wanted to be represented by Unite Here. Many of the workers, according to GSC activist Marley Moynahan, were initially wary of joining a union; some had belonged to organizations in the past that took their dues and did little to protect them. But, over the long campaign, a majority came to believe they “had a right to have a say” about their conditions on the job, and a union was the only way to achieve that. 

Now, no one would compare Georgetown to an anti-union employer like Wal-Mart or Massey Energy, owner of the West Virginia mine where 25 miners died last year in an explosion that was entirely preventable. Most of the faculty and students vote for Democrats, and the university’s official labor policy echoes Catholic social doctrine, which endorses a living wage and the right to form unions. After a GSC-led hunger strike in 2005, the administration drafted a Just Employment Policy which provides a wage of at least $14 an hour for all full-time contract workers and guarantees “that all working members have the right to freely associate and organize.” If the Aramark employees had gone on strike this year, most of the students whom they serve would almost certainly have supported them. But, instead, a cross-class alliance equipped with an intelligent plan won a victory—without anyone losing their job or a single day of work. 

Back in the 1980s, as American labor’s decline became too obvious to ignore, some leaders talked about developing a strategy of “community unionism.” Until now, the notion has existed more in the realm of theory than in practice. But what has happened in Madison and at Georgetown, between workers and those they serve or those who support their cause, ought to encourage a revival of broader coalitions for common ends. Teachers’ unions could work with students and parents to improve public schools, transit workers could consult regularly with bus and subway riders, nurses and orderlies might cooperate with patients’ rights groups. Decades ago, in labor’s heyday, such partnerships were known as acts of solidarity. Today, community unionism could help labor take the offensive again, after decades in which its numbers and reputation have eroded. By any name, it remains an excellent idea.

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent. His next book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, will be published in August (Knopf).

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