The stories of decades of UNC worker’s struggles led to a discussion Monday night about how things still could be better.
UNC’s Student Action with Workers, an organization that mobilizes support for worker-led campaigns on campus, welcomed an audience of more than 80 students, faculty, staff and community members to Hamilton Hall for a night of guest speakers and group discussions.
Laurel Ashton, a junior women’s studies major, said she organized the event to educate people about what’s happening with housekeepers and to create a forum to discuss how students can support the housekeepers on campus.
“In the past, the housekeepers were slaves, but today they’re still treated as second-class citizens,” Ashton said.
“There’s this culture of disrespect and isolation said in the name of students, and it’s our obligation to say that’s not true.”
Odessa Davis, who has been a housekeeper for 13 years, was suspended for a week without pay for sitting down to rest during an unauthorized break earlier this year, she said.
The incident was worrisome because her wages were already very low, she said.
“We still don’t make the living that we need to pay out bills,” she said.
Ashton said Davis works with strong chemicals all day, and since she has asthma, she has to sit down while using her inhaler.
The University’s Wage-Hour policy allows for rests during the day so long as the housekeeper obtains approval in advance from their supervisor. The policy came under scrutiny earlier this year after several housekeepers received suspensions during the hectic move-in preparations, though all the disciplinary actions were ultimately expunged and Davis was reimbursed.
Saladin Muhammad, the national chairman of Black Workers For Justice, said he was frustrated with the way the University handles worker’s issues.
“We assume academic institutions will pioneer in certain areas” to give workers more freedom to ask for benefits, Muhammad said.
“But here at UNC we find out that that is not the case.”
He stressed the importance of student participation in building a climate of solidarity and for students to identify with workers in a way that recognizes them as an important part in the educational environment.
“We need your support, we want your support, but we’re not just servants,” Muhammad said. “We expect to be treated with dignity and respect.”
After the speeches ended, audience members proposed ways to raise awareness on campus, such as having students stand up for 12 hours in a row, even in their classes, encourage students to pick up their trash and help students recognize that they could face similar struggles in their working environments.
Another proposal was to have students read housekeepers’ testimonies in the public spaces they are not allowed to frequent while working.
“We talk about the Carolina community, but are we really including the whole Carolina community?” Ashton asked the audience. “We should include the housekeepers and all the workers of the University.”
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