It is a strange contradiction of higher education that colleges serve as both nesting grounds for the capital R Radical Left—Democracy Now-watching, Dissent-reading, Marxist-Hegelian-Zizekian psycho-blatherers (that’s meant to be half self-deprecatory)—and as microcosms of massive social inequality. Take a look at any college campus and you’ll see it: Macaron-nibbling intellectuals conversing with custodial staff trying to balance three jobs. Every first year with open eyes has had that conversation with the janitor or food server or groundskeeper—the one about the day in, day out struggle of their lives, about just barely making enough to put food on the table. But, of course, by the second year their plight becomes a dirty secret and by the third an accepted fact of life, no less avoidable than natural law.
The occasion for this article is the October fifth strike at Harvard, a strike in which 700 cafeteria workers united to demand increased wages. At $22 an hour, their average wage is significantly higher than that of Bon Appetit workers, but they decided to rise up and strike anyway. Their demand? A living wage of $35,000 a year. To an employee of Bon App this might seem absurd, but this is because labor in Washington—and pretty much everywhere except certain pockets in the Northeast—is extremely fragmented, leaving workers ripe for exploitation.
This isn’t to say that Eastern Washington is without its labor heritage—no doubt there are equivalents to the Lowell Factory Girls and the 1912 Lawrence strike—but it is to say that the concept of labor rights is not really “in the air” here. We do, of course, have our local Teamsters, and it’s true that as recently as February six Goodwills in the area voted to unionize, but a search on the Walla Walla Union Bulletin website for “union” turns up few results. It is precisely this sort of vacuous environment, one in which labor rights are subsumed under the header of the prodigious Teamsters and no one really writes articles about the topic, that leads to exploitation. And we at Whitman see it right in front of us all the time.
Coming from North Carolina, Washington’s reputation for progressivism led me to believe that labor rights would be a regular topic of discussion, but instead what I found was a disappointingly passive, atomized environment. During my first year I began having regular discussions with a custodian about the difficulties of having to raise children while balancing three jobs. What I found through these talks was that he felt stifled and alone, like there was no collective voice for the workers of the college to gather under. Instead, each worker would have to make a plea to the higher ups on their own terms. And when it came to Bon App—the company that he worked for prior to becoming a custodian—things were even more fragmented.
As a community so deeply entrenched in the ideals of figures like Du Bois and Marx, this shouldn’t be an issue. We should be discussing the possibility of a worker collective to provide catering or the possibility of a living wage for every employee, not ways to give the workers a voice. But, if we insist on continuing along as we have, we might have to take the following Zizekian pronouncement as a warning: “Populism is ultimately sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!'” There, I made amends.