On Feb. 25, the Worker Student Alliance held a panel discussion on workers’ rights and ways to forward the progressive movement on campus and in Atlanta.
The panel consisted of five Atlanta-area students and a Sodexo employee, and approximately 35 people attended.
Tech students were represented on the panel by Martin Gantt, fifth-year BIO and founder of the WSA at Tech, and WSA member Evan Schwartz.
Gantt said, “We wanted to put this panel on to talk about what a lot of different people are doing. We wanted to make the case for a [public service announcement] and let students know what that means.”
One of the panelists, Nicholas Foster, represented the employees of Sodexo. Outlining the goals of many Sodexo employees and why he attended the panel, Foster said, “We want respect, we want better benefits for our workers–many of us are below the poverty line–and we just want to be heard. We want better pay, the average salary is $8.27 and that can’t get you much of anything today. [Lastly,] we want a better insurance plan that we can actually afford.”
As Foster sees it, despite Sodexo’s success at a corporate level, they have been unwilling to increase employee benefits or wages, despite having the ability to do so.
According to Foster, several Sodexo employees recently attended a shareholders’ conference and suggested expanding employee compensation and benefits, but their suggestions were dismissed across the board.
The panel wasn’t limited to Tech students and staff, however. Helen Cobbes, a student at Agnes Scott who is working on a living-wage program, participated as well.
Describing her program and the Progressive movement, Cobbes said, “We’re trying to build a student group to support [workers]. I see our work as very exciting because it’s something that hasn’t really happened in Atlanta before.”
Cobbes is optimistic about programs like hers, and believes that an “alliance between schools” will play an important role in issues like workers’ rights.
Tehereh Aghdasifar, a member of the Progressive Students’ Association at GSU, seconded these views. Aghdasifar said, “Basically what we want is a coalition between workers, students, and student and organizations.”
The panel was in consensus that the brunt of the economy’s effects are being borne more by those who make less. They raised the point that it’s unfair that the people who had no hand in the economy’s demise are bearing more of the brunt than those who’s decisions directly brought it about.
When discussing why the movement isn’t larger than it is, the general consensus, both from the panel and from the audience, was that it was more a matter of perception than one of substance.
Schwartz and Gantt agreed that while they feel the numbers support their points very well, the Progressive movement has difficulty putting a human face on them and, as a result, loses a large number of supporters they would otherwise be able to claim.
According to Gantt, the organization plans on working with other left-leaning organizations on campus to help spread its message. Gantt said, “We’re collaborating with [College Democrats and Students Organizing for Sustainability] on this event and on the [fee hikes] rally next week. We think there’s a lot of overlap in building the progressive student movement.”
WSA has gained the support of the College Democrats. Kristofer Carta, the President of the College Democrats at Tech, said, “We’re totally in support of WSA’s actions to represent workers on campus, who seem to continually be stepped on in their attempts to organize and be fairly represented.”
WSA is currently working with the Student Involvement Office to confirm student membership and become an official student organization. The group has chosen Anne Pollock, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology and Culture, as their faculty advisor.
“I met one of the organizers of the Student Worker Alliance at a community meeting in Atlanta about community safety. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and Martin told me about what they were trying to do at Tech,” Pollock said, “I was involved in social justice activism when I was a graduate student at MIT—during the height of the current Iraq war—and I believe that student-led campus activism is really important.”
Until Tech’s WSA is chartered, actions are largely being funded by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, with whom the former Tech bus drivers were affiliated.
WSA has taken part in a panel on Haiti, a campaign against union busting and labor and budget protests.
Their most recent action was a fee hike rally and speak-out on March 4, at the Campanile; actions are advertised via fliers. The WSA holds general body meetings in the Student Center’s Pine Room every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.