Student–Labor Alliance (SLA), a student-led organization at Occidental with 21 student members, brings together students and workers to advocate for on-campus workers’ rights. SLA was founded in Fall 2016 in the aftermath of the 2015 Oxy United for Black Liberation’s occupation of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center. According to SLA member Layla Hamedi (junior), workers felt a sense of solidarity with student grievances during the occupation and their interactions led the group to officially form in Fall 2016. SLA aims to assist on-campus workers in their own empowerment and illuminate the issues they face, according to SLA student members Melissa Mateo (sophomore) and Henrik de la Torre (sophomore). The organization meets with workers on a monthly basis. It also hosts training events and student-worker mixers. SLA tabled on the quad Feb. 13–16 to encourage students to sign an anti-outsourcing petition that over 700 people have signed, according to Oliver Artiga (junior).
SLA members made a presentation at an outsourcing training open to the Occidental community Feb. 21 that defines outsourcing as organizations hiring outside companies to do work that is usually done or was previously done by the organization’s own employees.
“[We help] workers empower themselves. They already have that will, and want to be organized,” Mateo said. “We’re not giving them the power — they have the power, we’re just seeing how we as students can use our privilege to give them information they might not have.”
As part of their efforts to improve conditions for workers at Occidental, members of SLA met with Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein March 8 and March 26 to discuss SLA’s recent campaign to end outsourcing and understaffing at Occidental.
“We wanted to bring forth what our petition meant, we wanted to talk about what exactly SLA was doing, as well as create this dialogue between the workers and Amos,” Artiga said.
Himmelstein declined to comment on the nature of the two meetings but said there is no practice of outsourcing on campus.
“Most schools outsource quite a bit, but Oxy really doesn’t,” Himmelstein said. “So we are kind of ahead of schools in that department. Our dining is done in-house, Facilities is done in-house, ITS is done in-house. With the exception of consultants, we do everything.”
According to the SLA petition, the number of staff in Occidental’s Grounds department has decreased from 23 full-time workers in 1991 to 11 in 2018, despite an increase in workload.
Speaking to the same topic of Facilities workers, Himmelstein said there are currently 13 full-time workers and one temporary worker and that he had no knowledge of the number of workers in 1991. The Occidental reached out to both Human Resources and Facilities to confirm the number of workers. Human Resources said the information is confidential and declined to comment.
According to Himmelstein, in upcoming contract negotiations between the college and the union Teamsters Local 911, who represents Facilities staff, members often discuss wages, hours and positions. Approximately 120 Occidental staff members are part of Teamsters Local 911, according to Hamedi. The contract renewal process involves negotiations between Occidental stakeholders and Occidental workers. These contract negotiations occur every two to three years, with the current contracts set to be renewed June 20.
“We have members from the college who meet with members from the bargaining unit, as well as the representative from the union,” Himmelstein said. “And there’s conversations and requests from both sides.”
A member of Facilities’ cleaning staff, who started working at Occidental in 2008 and requested anonymity out of concern for their employment, highlighted the value of SLA for themselves and their coworkers.
“We’ve learned that the union is us. The alliance [SLA] has helped us a lot in learning that — that we’re the union,” the cleaning staff member said.***
According to Mateo, Occidental workers genuinely care about students. Yolanda Martinez, who is a baker for Campus Dining and an involved member of SLA, said interacting with students is one of the highlights of her day.
“The students are the sun of my day,” Martinez said. “It doesn’t matter how busy we are, when we see that whatever we are prepping, you guys enjoy it, that’s good enough for us.”
According to Artiga, students who want to help advocate for workers’ rights can attend SLA events, sign the anti-outsourcing petition or follow the organization’s Facebook page. SLA plans to host a week of programming to bring labor to the forefront of conversation on campus, called Labor Week, at the end of April. Another way to make an impact is by acknowledging the effort that workers put into their jobs, Henrik De La Torre (sophomore), a student member of SLA, said.
“You can have a conversation with the person making your sandwich at the MP, or thank your cleaning staff member for cleaning your dorms — just reaching out to the workers and understanding them as humans, and respecting them for the tremendous amount that they do for us,” De La Torre said.
*Max Harrison-Caldwell, community news editor for The Occidental, translated this quote from a previously recorded interview.
**The Occidental granted this member of Facilities’ cleaning staff anonymity out of concern for the safety of the employee’s job.