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A seat at the table - The Vanderbilt Hustler: Opinion

A seat at the table

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Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 10:00 am

You may be tired of hearing about Vanderbilt’s dining workers, especially if you walked past the Occupy tents at Kirkland every day last semester, but trust me, you don’t have to agree with the broader Occupy movement they were affiliated with to see the importance of the dining workers’ cause. 

Every summer, after finals are over and the campus and its kitchens stand mostly vacant, nearly 200 displaced Vanderbilt dining workers hunt for temporary work in an already dismal job market. That search becomes even more difficult when they have to tell potential employers they’ll be quitting just three months after the company has invested a few weeks into training them. The administration hypes its employment assistance programs, but according to the union stewards, Vanderbilt’s job search support for summer 2012 amounted to little more than a few “Now Hiring” flyers and a phone number for Vanderbilt Temporary Services. 

Some workers find jobs for the summer. However, some aren’t so lucky, relying on food stamps as bills pile high on empty tables and utility companies shut off the electricity and water. But these troubles don’t begin in May or end when classes start in the fall: According to the union, data from Vanderbilt’s human resources department shows that many workers’ yearly salaries fall well below the federal poverty line. During the months they’re at Vanderbilt, many of them have to take an additional full time job — sometimes two — to feed their families and make ends meet.

In May, a few of the laid-off workers invited the Chancellor Zeppos over for dinner so he could see their hardships firsthand. Rather than capitalizing on the PR opportunity, Zeppos declined, citing his concerns that meeting with them would “sidetrack the agreed-upon methods for negotiating.” Since then their requests have not been met with any public response from the administration. Their correspondence with the chancellor is available online at the OUR Vandy website for anyone interested in getting a better grasp of the situation. In their letter, the union stewards proposed a list of possible solutions, such as the following: reinstating and expanding the job fair Vanderbilt Dining used to host in March; working out more coordination between Vanderbilt Dining and Vanderbilt Temporary Services; using the university’s extensive networking to reach out the community and help workers find temporary jobs; granting reasonable bonuses following performance evaluations and establishing a benefit program to make the summer drought more bearable.  

It’s worth noting that the Vanderbilt workers are not alone in this struggle. Over the past year, dining workers have campaigned for fairer negotiations at Harvard, Brown and Northeastern. An October editorial in Harvard’s liberal monthly magazine “Perspective” last fall echoes the sentiments of OUR Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt workers: that such wealthy universities build up a facade of promoting caring, liberal values while failing to provide for their struggling employees should spark outrage among us. Sure, you don’t have to be an econ major to understand why such a wide gap persists between the poverty of the workers and the millions paid to our chancellor or spent on renovations and athletic facilities, but you don’t have to be a bleeding heart hippie to know why it shouldn’t. It’s time for the administration to make sure they live up to that compassionate, progressive image Vanderbilt has so meticulously cultivated. 

OUR Vanderbilt is hosting another rally this evening from 5-6 p.m. in Sarratt Student Center, room 189 next to Last Drop Coffee Shop (Note that the location was changed from the steps of Kirkland because of the chance of rain). If you think you have time, feel free to drop by. If you don’t, consider signing their petition at ourvandy.org, or if you haven’t yet had a chance to see Sebastian Rogers’ documentary on the dining workers’ plight, give it a view. It’s only about half an hour long, and I assure you that hearing the personal narratives of these hardworking men and women you’ve seen behind the counter in Rand or Commons will change your mind.

— Eric Lyons is a junior in the College of Arts and Science and a member of the Vanderbilt Debate Team. He can be reached at eric.c.lyons@vanderbilt.edu.

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