Students protest staff working conditions

More than 25 students gathered to protest the treatment of USC staff during a contract negotiation that began Nov. 13.
(Ally Wei | Daily Trojan)

More than 25 students gathered in front of Tommy Trojan Thursday afternoon to denounce the University’s treatment of hospitality employees in the wake of a contract negotiation that began Nov. 13. 

The students held signs that read “We stand with the workers of USC” and “Workers of the world unite.” At the demonstration, protesters spoke about workers’ holiday hours cuts and housing expenses. They alleged that the University owns many of its employees’ residences and charges them by the bed, making rent too expensive for staff with larger families.

Several of the students requested not to be identified, saying that the protest emphasized communal leadership and that allowing any individual to speak for the group would be counterproductive to the goal of the protest.

One speaker said at the protest that the University allocated funds unequally to administrators and lower wages for the workers.

“It is a distribution problem; it’s not a resource problem,” he said. “How can a school with a $5 billion endowment say that they don’t have the capital to pay their workers? A school that is constantly expanding, gentrifying the surrounding neighborhood, adding to the increasing homeless population of Los Angeles — how can they say they don’t have the capital to pay their workers?”

According to the University, USC has negotiated contracts with Local 11 in the past and expects to do so in this case as well. 

“We believe the university offers competitive compensation and exemplary benefits that make it a place people want to work,” the University wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “We look forward to continued discussions with the union’s bargaining team and working together toward a new contract.”

During the protest, students walked from Tommy Trojan to the Tutor Campus Center until an operations coordinator asked that they relocate to avoid disrupting nearby students and blocking the TCC entrance. The protesters then walked across McCarthy Quad before stopping at USC Village, where they continued to chant and made speeches using a megaphone before returning to the center of campus.

As they marched, students chanted, “Racist, classist, neofascist” and “Hey hey, ho ho, subcontract has got to go,” referring to the University’s custodial services subcontract with Aramark, which one of the student speakers alleged works in the private prison industry. According to Aramark’s website, the company does not operate correctional facilities or penitentiaries but provides meals to inmates in 500 correctional facilities around the United States.

An estimated 800 housing and hospitality workers at USC have partnered with Unite Here Local 11, a union for workers in Southern California and Arizona, to negotiate contracts with the University. The negotiations began last week, when Unite Here Local 11 negotiator Austin Lynch presented workers’ demands for increased wages and consistent working hours to University administration.

Ariann Barker, a freshman majoring in writing for screen and television, spoke at the protest and said she believes that under current conditions, workers’ rights are being infringed upon by insufficient pay and housing challenges.

“The workers that work in [USC] Village, the workers that work to scan your food in the dining hall, the workers that work in the [Customer Service Centers], who clean your room — everyone in this space has not been given the rights that they are guaranteed,” Barker said.

Alejandro Rico-Gomez, a freshman majoring in fine arts who attended the protest, said students’ own backgrounds make the workers’ rights issue hit close to home. He said it was important for all members of the working class to unite on behalf of those struggling, saying that staff, students and faculty should come together to fight against what he called an oppressive administration.

“We are here not only because of the awful conditions of the workers at USC, but because the struggle for breaking down those conditions is entwined with a greater struggle for the political power of the working class,” Rico-Gomez said. “We hope that the contract that the workers are fighting for is passed.”

Rico-Gomez said he learned about the protest on social media. The protest organizers spread the word using an Instagram account called Active Change USC that became active in the week preceding the protest and posted about the workers’ rights issues discussed at the protest. Students also placed flyers about the protest in residence halls and around campus.