Campus Workers Share Stories
Published: Friday, October 11, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 11, 2013 02:10
Two years after unionizing and fighting for improved benefits and pay, employees at O’Donovan Hall spoke in support of other workers and asked for student help in pushing to improve workers’ rights Tuesday evening.
“Behind the Kitchen Doors: A Conversation With Leo’s Workers” was co-sponsored by the Georgetown University Student Association, the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, the Black Student Alliance, Caribbean Culture Circle, the Black House, MEChA de Georgetown and Georgetown’s NAACP chapter.
Donte Crestwell, a current Leo’s employee, and Tarshea Smith, a former Leo’s employee who now works with the Leo’s workers’ union UNITE HERE, spoke about the history of Leo’s campaign for unionization as well as the current state of campus workers’ rights.
Smith credits students for helping her to stand up to the abuses she suffered while working at Leo’s.
“I’m so thankful to Georgetown students. I’m so thankful for you all to be here today to hear our stories. If the students had never reached out to me, pushed me, I would have never, never done it,” Smith said. “Just say hello. The management is so intimidated to see a student in a conversation with a worker, that just gives us so much power.”
Brittney Blakely (COL ’14), GUSA secretary of social justice, agreed with Smith about the impact that students can have.
“Students can best help by simply acknowledging our campus workers and making the effort to engage in conversation, get to know them,” she wrote in an email.
In the past decade, campus workers’ rights have greatly improved with the creation of a just employment policy and the unionization of Leo’s workers. Reflecting that progress, the talk on Tuesday shifted from a conversation about food service workers to a discussion about other often overlooked groups on campus, including employees in the Office of Facilities and Epicurean and Company.
Lorena Santiago-Hernandez (SFS ’16), co-chair of MEChA, addressed the dichotomy between treatment of campus workers and campus administrators, like university President John J. DeGioia.
“They deserve the same respect. President DeGioia works for the university, just like these workers. He wouldn’t tolerate the lack of respect, and neither should the workers,” Santiago-Hernandez said. “We need to acknowledge their presence. We have so much respect for professors and academia. We should have as much or even more for workers.”
Black Student Alliance president Erika Nedwell (COL ’14) said that it is imperative for Georgetown students to support workers.
“People cognitively do things that you wouldn’t want your mother to have to do, like cleaning up your vomit after a night out,” Nedwell said. “We all talk about being a part of this Georgetown community, and being men and women for others, and not everyone is living that.”
Student leaders also expressed concern about the rights of service workers at the Hoya Court establishments, which are set to open this month. Those workers are not yet included in the Leo’s workers’ union contract.
“The Elevation Burger, Salad Creation and Subway will not be under the union until January 2014 at the earliest, when the contract is up for renewal,” Crestwell said.
Many of the groups also worried about workers’ rights at Epicurean. Four Epicurean workers sued proprietor Chang Wook Chon in 2010 for allegedly violating the Fair Labor Standards Act and withholding overtime work payment; Chon also pled guilty in March for inappropriate conduct during the lawsuit, including threatening the plaintiffs. The civil lawsuit is ongoing.
“The abuses of workers at Epicurean is very closely tied to our just employment policy,” former GUSA Vice President and current Kalmanovitz Initiative administrator Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS ’13) said. “We’ve committed ourselves to being a place of justice that doesn’t allow people to be treated like that, and yet it happens here on our campus,”
Kohnert-Yount, who worked on the union campaign as a student, re-assured attendees of the overwhelming power of the collective student voice.
“In six short years, the attitude that changed. Georgetown went from threatening to expel students who were standing up for its workers on its campus to sending a letter to its contractors saying, ‘Hey, we are about workers’ rights,” Kohnert-Yount said. “That didn’t come about because they just turned magically from dictators. That came about because of the students.”