SZCZESNIEWSKI: Making workers a priority

It’s 6 p.m., and that means bedtime for Ms. Diana. She needs to be up before the sun so that she can hustle over to Rand Cafeteria by 3 a.m., just like all the other dining workers on the first shift. Most won’t be home until 3 p.m. For over 45 years, Ms. Diana has been working at Vanderbilt, serving students their meals and fighting to rid this institution of racism and unjust labor policies.

In the meantime, her classmates from Pearl High School are signing book deals and earning local fame. Walter Murray is one of them, and his name should be familiar from the Common’s residence hall Murray House — yes, that Murray. Her other classmate was Perry Wallace, the now campus-famous athlete who was the first black man to land a spot on the varsity basketball team. Currently, the Cohen Gallery even has an exhibit displaying photographs and memorabilia documenting his experiences.

Yet did you know who Ms. Diana was before now? Labor rights at Vanderbilt have received temporary waves of attention from students, but there isn’t enough lasting community between students and workers for a consistent movement to endure. We are currently in one of those dips when few students hear of workers’ struggles.This is a woman who has collaborated with Reverend James Lawson to strategize around these issues, yet she is commended and spotlighted for none of it. No one knows she exists. No one knows most of our campus workers individually, and all of them have histories and experiences as rich as Ms. Diana’s.

The bulk of Vanderbilt students box staff into the stereotype of uneducated simpletons who were incapable of pursuing more intellectual careers. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as their ranks are brimming with talent. Unfortunately, workers have been dehumanized to the point that they are not treated as valuable members of the Vandy community.

Some campus papers have refused to publish pieces about worker-related news because it was deemed not relevant to students. Not only are workers part of their readership, but recent turns of events, such as the firing of Director of Dining Camp Howard and the search for his replacement, will radically impact employee’s lives, and the sad truth is that students have more agency than they realize to influence this change. Just last month, students from the sustainability clubs were invited by administrators to meet with the search firm that will scout nationally for candidates so that the students could give input about what qualities or skills they want in a Director of Dining. Some workers were invited, but when speaking to my old-timer friends, most hadn’t gotten the memo about what was happening. It is definitely relevant for students to know both the unfairness of the situation and that they have the power to change our administration’s behavior.

It’s because of a lack of inclusivity that students are ignorant of the trials Vanderbilt staff faces. The first half of this semester, workers were engaged in union negotiations akin to pulling teeth. They were not your typical contract renewal negotiations, but rather an attempt to remedy the disparity of benefits granted to nonunion workers but not those who are unionized.

The core issue was equalizing pay, and though Vanderbilt’s final offer would have made sure union workers’ starting pay was $12.50, the proposal didn’t pass. Workers voted it down because their money would be doled out every two weeks instead of every week. This would save administration some cash, but would cause too much strain for employees surviving from check to check. Nonunion workers will continue to have advantages over union workers until the negotiations reopen in fall 2017.

But our workers are not strangers to systemic injustice, many of them carrying more years of service to this school than scholars. They’ve been fighting for their dignity since Vanderbilt opened its doors — long before Ms. Diana’s day. And it’s always been about elitism, sexism and racism. Our campus has succumbed to a culture of apathy, in all realms of activism, including labor rights. This wasn’t always so.

Five years ago, there was a group of students who started to befriend and genuinely listen to Vanderbilt staff. They were troubled to hear how many abuses their blue collar neighbors were facing. Their concern culminated in Occupy Vanderbilt, a group in solidarity with the national Occupy movement.

Our campus saw its first protest encampment as students pitched tents on the lawn in front of Kirkland Hall. They rallied together students, dining workers, and members of Occupy Nashville for a series of speeches on Kirkland’s steps. Workers were given a platform to speak of Vanderbilt’s violations against workers rights, and students were given a space to contemplate how to leverage their privilege to help the unheard voices of their community.

The crowning success of this campaign was administration’s promise to provide summer work opportunities for dining workers, rather than lay off the majority of them. Occupy Vanderbilt announced this in their anarchist publication, The Occupied Hustler, to avoid the censorship of the school’s mainstream media outlets. Let’s just say, maybe some things never change.

However, the summer issue persists to this day. There were a few poorly advertised hiring fairs in the following years, but due to poor attendance, those efforts were abandoned. This is a big problem though because the wage staff gets is for a yearly salary that assumes the worker is employed year-round. The truth of the matter is that 49% of workers are partial year staff (PYS). These workers say they are scheduled 34 weeks in the year, administrators say they work 36. Either way, according to a union representative, the average income is $12.12 for PYS employees so in one year they will be making maximum $17,438, but probably more like $16,470. Administrators assert that workers simply aren’t trying hard enough to find summer work because, if you look around Nashville, the hospitality and culinary industries are booming. This outlook undermines the complexity of sequestering a job in Nashville that is accessible and accommodates workers with children.

The Occupy Vanderbilt students graduated, and with them disappeared a lot of the know-how about and protests against labor rights infringements happening under students’ noses. Gradually this awareness has seeped back, but only to a few pockets of campus. Groups like Vanderbilt Food Justice and Vanderbilt Students Against Nonviolence have taken the torch from Occupy Vanderbilt. They’ve held solidarity marches and will soon be unveiling plans for a magazine profiling workers from every corner of campus, a la the Unsung Heroes of Georgetown University.

It will take a culture shift to truly undo the wrongs our workers face. Their faces and names need to be acknowledged as valuable parts of our community. Among them there are diplomas, careers and passions, but the nametags and uniforms have become symbols of inferiority and even threats — have you ever noticed that maintenance workers look away from students? They’re told to do this. Why should they be treated like a menace? In all spheres of Vanderbilt employment, be it dining, grounds, housekeeping or any other department, administration acts unjustly, and is perpetuated by the unjust behavior of students. Those enrolled in Vanderbilt are a commodity and need to stay appeased or they won’t pay tuition. Our voices echo on this campus, and it’s time we were a human microphone for the mute. It’s time some empathy penetrated our get-the-grade mentality and we fought for the future of someone other than ourselves.

Let’s not be a university that sees spurts of progress that pass with the waves of graduating seniors. Let’s empower ourselves and others through a continuing culture of activism.

Ania Szczesniewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at