A group of students, faculty, staff and local community members gathered on the Quad Wednesday afternoon to rally against Emory’s contract with campus food provider Sodexo and hear speeches from supporters such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nephew Isaac Farris, Jr.
The event was organized by Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS), a student group that has accused Sodexo of mistreating its workers and holding itself to a lower standard of labor that Emory abides by for its direct hires.
According to the event’s Facebook page, the rally was intended to address these concerns and pressure the administration to cut its contract with Sodexo.
Farris was joined by Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort and civil rights advocate Reverend Joseph Lowery, who both voiced their agreement with the aims of SWS in brief but energetic speeches to the crowd.
SWS member and College sophomore Alex Zavell opened the event by recounting the group’s cause and goals. Zavell explained that SWS is asking the administration to implement better conditions for workers.
SWS has outlined the terms of these conditions in a proposed labor code of conduct that would include, among other stipulations, subsidies for transportation and higher wages.
Several speakers shared their perspectives on the issues SWS members raised. Farris, who is also the president of the King Center, announced his formal endorsement of SWS’s cause on behalf of the King Center and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
“My uncle spoke out many times in support of the labor movement,” Farris said. “He died defending the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968.”
He added that protestors at Emory are “picking up the torch of human dignity” by working for improved conditions for service employees.
Fort, who was present at the Sodexo Truth Tour event hosted by the United Students Against Sweatshops earlier this month, also delivered a speech in support of SWS’s cause.
“I’ve always believed that if you collaborate with evil-doers, you do evil yourself,” Fort said to students in the crowd, encouraging them to “not get worn down” and “not be put off” by resistance from Emory administrators.
College freshman Bryan Cronan said he hoped the rally would prompt Emory to take its dining services in-house and serve students without a middleman contract.
Banners and signs bearing messages such as “We Can’t Subcontract Responsibility” and “No Hypocrisy” lined the Quad lawn in front of the Administration Building, and students sang protest songs with revised lyrics to fit the occasion.
After an editorial written by Zavell and College sophomore Ross Gordon for the Wheel
’s April 15 issue, University President James W. Wagner wrote and published a response addressed to Zavell on the University’s website on Tuesday.
Vice President of the University Gary Hauk read Wagner’s letter aloud as a response to the concerns raised at the rally. The letter relates SWS’ efforts to cut the Sodexo contract to an ongoing struggle between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Sodexo and also re-affirms the University’s position that Emory has found no cause to terminate the Sodexo contract.
College freshman David Shortell said he believes SWS’s cause needs to be addressed as a gesture to workers “who give us so much every day.”
“This is one of the first times I’ve seen Emory really come behind an activist movement, and I think it’s really inspiring,” Shortell said.
Letisha Smith, a College senior who learned about the SWS rally through a Facebook advertisement, said that studying abroad in South Africa and witnessing the political activism of students there inspired her to get involved in a student movement on Emory’s campus.
“A lot of my time here at Emory has been about social issues and the working poor, and actually seeing these issues, knowing that people who I interact with every day are dealing with them, made me want to get involved and come out today,” Smith said.
Joe Diaz, a graduate student in the philosophy department and a member of SWS, said he believes the rally was a success based on its turnout. Wednesday’s rally drew more Emory students than any previous SWS rally.
“We had a fantastic turnout, high energy, an arousing and strongly worded speech from [Fort], and a supportive and symbolic statement of support from [Ferris] on behalf of the SCLC,” Diaz said.
SWS members, who continued their demonstration after the rally by leading a group of supporters into a sit-in at the administration building, said they are committed to continuing their efforts to voice workers’ concerns and push for the administration to end its contract with Sodexo.
— Contact Lane Billings.