In a bid to push out campus food-service provider Sodexo, Emory’s Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS) set up camp in front of the administration building on Wednesday — the culmination of a day-long demonstration that necessitated police intervention to remove protesters from the building once doors locked down that evening.
SWS and its supporters remained stationed on the Quadrangle yesterday.
The protest — preceded by several other rallies and letters to the President’s Cabinet concerning Sodexo’s labor practices on campus and beyond — began with a sit-in following Wednesday’s noon rally and continued through the administration building’s shutdown at 6:30 p.m. Students did not exit the building until around 8 p.m., after University officials and Emory police officers repeatedly issued warnings that their continued presence would violate University policy and criminal trespass regulations. Consequences could have included conduct violations or arrest; neither were carried out.
SWS member and second-year Rollins School of Public Health student Roger Sikes said that at approximately 1 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, the group led about 50 supporters of mostly Emory students to the fourth floor of the administration building, where the University’s top officials are situated.
According to Sikes, SWS decided to amp up the pressure after a year and a half of “getting the same answers from the administration” in response to their demands. These demands, initially elucidated in a March 15, 2010 letter to Wagner, called for a new labor code of conduct and an accompanying president’s commission to enforce it. They have escalated to call for the removal of Sodexo from campus.
The group has repeatedly alleged that Sodexo condones worker mistreatment, while the administration has held its stance that the University’s responsibility to interfere does not precede the responsibility of Sodexo workers and management to seek remedies through established company and federal avenues.
Vice President and Deputy to the President Gary Hauk said the administration responded to Wednesday’s sit-in according to protocol established by the Center of Emergency Preparedness and Response. Hauk said he invited SWS to meet with Wagner the following day, but the group declined unless the administration first agreed to a set of terms.
He said these conditions included: acknowledging as fact allegations of human rights violations levied at Sodexo; acknowledging as fact worker mistreatment on campus; agreeing that Sodexo workers ought to be afforded the same benefits as Emory direct employees; and publicly announcing steps the University would take to address these issues.
Later, Hauk said, the group requested instead that Wagner engage with them in a public forum open to other Emory community members and media outlets.
The administration did not yield to these demands, maintaining the position outlined in a letter from Wagner made public Tuesday night. In the letter, Wagner states that Emory has not found evidence that Sodexo workers are “subject to systematic violations of either Emory’s code of ethics or Sodexo’s own internal policies” and reiterated that “unresolved charges and counter-charges” concerning Sodexo’s activities beyond campus are not cause to cut Sodexo’s contract.
Wagner also addressed the role of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has co-hosted several rallies on campus in the past year and has conducted union meetings in the area.
“The crux of the issue appears to stand at the intersection of the competing interests of two giant organizations: on the one hand, SEIU’s interest in breaking more fully into representation of food service workers on university campuses; and, on the other hand, Sodexo’s wish to preserve its reputation and position of leadership in the food service industry,” Wagner wrote.
In the past year, Sodexo has conducted mandatory meetings that management purports are purely informative but that SWS charges are anti-union. SWS maintains that the group’s actions on campus are motivated by their own concerns and discoveries, and not simply an off-shoot of SEIU’s “Clean Up Sodexo” campaign on campuses nationwide.
Hauk said that once the building closed at 6:30 p.m., Dean of Campus Life John Ford informed students three times that only authorized personnel could be present after doors were locked.
The police arrived after 7:30 p.m., Hauk said, and Emory Police Chief Craig Watson informed students that the students were now trespassing and could arrested. After the second warning, the crowd dwindled from approximately 30 to 12, Hauk said.
At a quarter before 8 p.m., an arrest squad arrived on the fourth floor. According to Hauk, the hallway emptied out a just after the hour.
Sikes said he initially did not think the administration would allow the student protesters — including many freshmen and sophomores — to be arrested. However, he said, the presence of the arrest squad persuaded the group to continue their demonstration on the Quad instead.
“We saw more than 22 officers, many in bullet-proof vests,” Sikes said.. “When we walked through the first-floor hallway, the atmosphere was intense. It was dark, and in each of the rooms, there was one officer or multiple officers either crouching in the room or peering at us.”
Prior to the noon rally, which gathered the largest Emory student presence so far, College sophomore Alex Zavell had sent an email urging students to attend and recounting an incident in which signs publicizing the event were removed.
According to Zavell, Emory Grounds Department removed two signs from Asbury Circle last Friday. He noted that chalking on the ground that read “Support Workers’ Rights, Kick Out Sodexo” had been removed as well.
Zavell stated that after following up with Grounds Director Jimmy Powell, he believed Ford had ordered the removal of the signs because the signs were “too political” and had mentioned Wagner’s name directly.
Powell did not respond to requests for interview and could not confirm.
Wagner wrote in an email to the Wheel
that the removal of the signs took place as a result of miscommunication, “resulting in actions for which we must take full blame and do apologize.”
Based on the photos he had seen, Wagner wrote, he does believe the message was not inappropriate.
“This incident has already prompted a discussion in the University Cabinet about how better to provide guidelines and processes for review and approval of posted messages. We will learn and improve from our mistakes,” Wagner wrote, adding that the University values open communication based on a standard “much higher than merely free speech.”
The events of the past two days led to a 5 p.m. meeting yesterday between Wagner and SWS members. The meeting was the latest of a series since SWS first outlined its requests in the March 15, 2010 letter.
Since then, SWS has reiterated its charge that subcontracted employees on campus are subject to lower labor standards than Emory’s direct hires. A Sept. 10 letter called for the University to conduct an official audit of Sodexo’s contract; require subcontractors to provide the same benefits offered to direct hires, including transportation subsidies; and re-define its living wage to be in line with the regional Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers and at least equal to 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold for a family of four.
Emory currently mandates a living wage rate of $10.75 per hour for all workers on campus, up from $10.50 last year and notches above the federal and state minimum wage.
Hauk said the administration has continued to diligently investigate questions raised by SWS since the first letter and stands by the position outlined in Wagner’s recent letter.
“Their view seems to be that the administration has been unresponsive because it has not agreed with their position,” Hauk wrote in an email to the Wheel
. “In fact, the administration (including President Wagner personally) has been very responsive, meeting with their representatives many times over the past year, spending countless hours considering the facts as we are able to ascertain them from many quarters, and weighing charges and counter-charges by SWS, SEIU and Sodexo,”
Wagner said he believes additional conversations with SWS may help pinpoint particular areas of disagreement.
“But at one point, we may have to agree to disagree,” Wagner said, adding that he will remain open to continued dialogue.
Sikes said the group will continue to pressure the administration to implement its demands, noting that a president’s commission on the status of class was finally formed after a push by Emory professors.
“We’ve learned that the only way we’re going to make concrete changes is through pressure,” he said.
— Contact Tiffany Han.