OPINION: Labor rights rely on activist action

Adriana Sanchez | Daily Trojan

Last week, Keck Medical Center of USC settled a new contract with its workers, offering better wages and benefits. Through this settlement, importantly, the center ended its contract with Sodexo, a multinational food-service corporation that employed about 80 workers in the dietary services department. These workers now will receive higher wages and the full benefits of USC employees. Yet, this move only happened through the tireless efforts of union organizers and student activists who rallied for better working conditions. In light of this victory, it’s important to realize that organized pressure is key in ensuring that labor rights will not be exploited or disregarded at our University.

Keck began the bargaining process in March with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents more than 1,000 Keck workers. One of the goals the union prioritized was insourcing the dietary workers employed by Sodexo, said union organizer Irene Arellano.

USC’s previous contract with Sodexo is an example of a neoliberal practice referred to as the “race to the bottom.” This practice involves outsourcing labor to third-party entities — in this case, Sodexo — that compete for the lowest price. Several companies compete with each other to offer USC the cheapest contract and consequently, USC employs the cheapest labor.

As a result, employees of Sodexo receive painfully low wages, usually under $15 an hour, and are left without insurance and other benefits given to workers directly employed by USC.

There is no excuse for Keck, or any University affiliate, to seek out cheap labor.

As of June 2017, the University has an endowment of $5.1 billion, and the Keck Medical Center generated $30 million in profits in 2016. In 2017, Keck CEO Thomas Jackiewicz made $2.7 million, a 23 percent increase from the year before, according to Arellano. It’s clear that there is no shortage of wealth, yet a large group of workers are working at the poverty level, forced to utilize food stamps and MediCal.

The University is effectively communicating that it cares more about maximum revenue retention, rather than paying its workers enough to survive without living in poverty.

The circumstances that lead to any USC worker living on               poverty-level wages is a deliberate choice made by administrators and executives. Arellano said it best: “When you have more than 80 percent of your dietary staff in your hospital, a world class institution, earning less than $15 an hour … How can you say that you’re operating with integrity when you know that your profits and your success lie on exploiting workers?”

And USC representatives did not operate with integrity while bargaining — it dragged the process out with the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Time and again, USC chooses to not treat its laborers as members of the “Trojan Family.”

For one of the bargaining meetings on Oct. 26, Arellano said that organizers waited five hours for University representatives to respond to the union’s wage proposal. They were told that USC would withhold its own proposal unless NUHW removed the dietary workers from the negotiations.

According to Keck respiratory therapist Noemi Aguirre, Keck management went as far as asking the representatives of NUHW to kick out one of their fellow members from the dietary staff. Officials apparently believe they have the right to tell NUHW who they’re allowed to have in the bargaining room. NUHW and its members responded by voting for a strike that would have occurred in mid-November.

Additionally, NUHW worked with USC’s Student Coalition for Labor Exploitation to delivery a letter of demands to interim President Wanda Austin. The group taking part in the action was met at the door of Bovard Auditorium by armed DPS officers and was told they could not enter the building.

Unsurprisingly, USC yielded to the workers’ demands with all due haste, ended their contract with Sodexo and incorporated the workers into the formal USC staff. But, this action would not have occurred without such pressure.

USC administrators are not consciously intending to exploit as many workers as possible. They genuinely believe that they are the most ethically-guided individuals to lead the University, but their resulting decisions appear to be informed by their own self-righteousness and the classist belief that workers simply don’t know what’s best for them.

Various scandals at the University have shown the student body that our leaders are fallible, self-interested individuals — not bastions of liberal-minded guidance.

Whenever we see our institutions formally excluding us from the direction of policy, we must look to each other in the name of common cause, or we’ll be left out of the privilege that our hard work deserves.

As the very skeleton of USC’s operation, these workers certainly deserve just compensation. And until USC actively shows a genuine commitment to its laborers, we should continue to plow up the ground in pursuit of a more equitably structured school.