Campus workers continue fight for wage increase

The fight for a wage increase for campus hospitality workers intensified Thursday evening, with nearly 200 demonstrators protesting throughout the University Park campus.

The rally, hosted by the UNITE HERE Local 11 labor union and the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA), in conjunction with the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, is the most recent demonstration in a campaign that began last November.

“When I came to work at USC, I thought it would be better for my children, that I would be better off here to be part of the Trojan family,” said Abigail Lopez, an employee at the on-campus restaurant Lemonade. “But after a while, when you notice your check and how hard you work, how it’s not fair … you realize we’re like the lower-class citizen.”

Local 11, a union for hospitality and service workers in Los Angeles and an affiliate of the national union UNITE HERE, is campaigning for two main changes to the recently expired contract between the union and the university: a $15 per hour wage and full-time hours for employees.

“Most people who work at USC do not have 40 hours of work, maybe 36, 35,” said Ofelia Carrillo, a member of the communications team for the union. “Some people have been here for 42 years and still do not have full-time work.”

The university employs roughly 900 hospitality workers, and the workers’ current contract has been expired since June 30. In the six months since, union and university officials have not been able to reach an agreement.

Though the university has offered a wage increase of 25 cents, many workers stress it isn’t sufficient.

“Twenty-five cents is not enough for us to survive,” said Renita Shepard, an employee at Lemonade.

Wednesday’s rally began at 4 p.m., with community members, students, workers and union coordinators congregating at the United University Church on the north side of campus.

From there, the protesters separated into seven locations across campus, including the Radisson Hotel at USC, the on-campus restaurant Moreton Fig and the Ronald Tutor Campus Center.

The separate groups then gathered in Hahn Plaza at approximately 5:30 p.m., where for about 30 minutes the demonstrators marched in a large circle that spread across the university square.

“[USC officials] sit in their suits and think they have the power, but there is nothing more powerful than students and workers and community coming together,” said SCALE member Sarah Newell at the demonstration. “This is the moment where USC changes, and we will fight until it is right.”

This rally is the first official demonstration of the semester, with one previously being held in November. SCALE member Jenny Vallegas shared that the union is fully organizing the workers’ campaign, and that the students involved are instead standing in solidarity with the workers as representatives of the USC community.

“We’re here to leverage our privilege as students and to speak up on what is going on,” Villegas said. “We have stakeholdership, we pay tuition.”

The union campaign, dubbed “Let’s Raise SC!”, states that the average yearly wage for USC hospitality workers is approximately $18,800, citing a university statistic. Workers active in the cause stressed that the earnings are not enough to live in Los Angeles.

“At the standard we are at right now, we are barely surviving,” said Paco Torres, a worker at the student dining hall Cafe 84. “We’re living check-to-check.”

Carillo shared that the yearly wage statistic was sent to the union by the university and was not union-calculated. University officials could not confirm the number as of press time.

In a statement, USC maintained that they are confident a contract agreement will be reached and spoke to the benefits Local 11 employees receive at the university.

“In addition to wage and health benefits that compare very favorably to similar settings outside the university, Local 11 employees at USC also are eligible for some other valuable university benefits offered to faculty and staff, including free tuition for themselves and their dependents, retirement contributions from the university and more,” Thomas Sayles, senior vice president for university relations, wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “We also provide extensive training, and through that training, the opportunity for upward mobility in their employment here.”

The protest comes at the heels of President C. L. Max Nikias’ announcement to the campus community on Tuesday that the university had reached the $4 billion mark of USC’s $6 billion fundraising initiative. Nearly $732 million was garnered in gifts in 2014 alone.

This is not the first time the union has demonstrated at USC. One hospitality worker in particular, Maria Villalobos, shared that this is the third protest campaign she’s participated in over the 42 years she has worked at USC. Los Angeles County labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, who was a key part of the union’s last campaign in the 2000s, stressed that this is not a fight that the campus workers will give up soon.

“If we have to prove again to USC that we will fight until fairness and justice are reached in the union contract, then we will walk out, we will strike, we will picket, we will march, we will get arrested,” said Durazo, currently vice president for immigration, civil rights and diversity at UNITE HERE. “We will fight back, and we will win.”


Sarah Dhanaphatana contributed to this story.



Correction: A previous version of this story stated the rally was hosted by UNITE HERE Local 11 labor union and the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation. It was actually hosted by UNITE HERE Local 11 labor union, the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) and the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.