Students rally to support labor


Supporters applaud as Illinois Student Senator Carlos Daniel Rosa, sophomore in LAS and Chair of UNFAS, speaks during a student-led labor rally next to the Alma Mater in Urbana on Sunday, April 4, 2009.

By Kevin McLoughlin

More than 40 students and community members assembled at the foot of the Alma Mater to demonstrate their support for fair treatment of workers on campus and nationwide on Saturday.

The rally was organized by Unidos Nuestra Fuerza Avanzará Siempre (UNFAS), and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/Chicana de Aztlán (MEChA). Co-sponsors included the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), I-Resist, Justice in Palestine, the Campus Antiwar Network, the International Socialist Organization and Jobs with Justice.

The rally focused on three main issues: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the Vendor Code of Conduct (VCC) and the upcoming GEO contract negotiations.

“There are workers on this campus that make the work we do possible,” said Carlos Rosa, chair of UNFAS and sophomore in LAS.

The Employee Free Choice Act, introduced to Congress on March 10, would facilitate the union-forming process.

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Justus Fortado, building service worker and staff representative for the Service Employees International Union, said that as the workforce shrinks, employees bear a heavier burden. They have seen a general rise in injuries and a subsequent increase in court cases involving Workers’ Compensation.

“Those issues don’t affect us directly, because we have a union,” Fortado said. “We are expressing solidarity with those who don’t. But if things are let go, eventually it will find its way to us.”

Fortado added that although there are unions at the University, he hoped that the administration would change their attitude regarding workers.

“They could definitely have us as part of the discussion about our rights,” he said, adding that many workers feel the University simply talks at them, instead of engaging in discussion.

Rosa also discussed the VCC, a list of ethical standards submitted to University President B. Joseph White one year ago. If enacted, it would establish guidelines governing the University’s interactions with different businesses.

“Basically any business that has alleged human rights abuses (would be affected),” he added, citing Coca-Cola and Nike as examples.

“We want our tuition to only to go to vendors who are going to use our money ethically.”

Fortado said that the VCC would encourage corporate and product diversity, which would be good for business.

“I’m sure (the University) would disagree, because they’re making a lot of money,” Fortado said, referring to the University’s private contracts.

Rosa and the rally participants criticized what they called inaction on the part of President White, chanting “One year is enough” as part of their protest.

The rally also expressed support for the GEO’s upcoming contract negotiations. John Gergely, graduate student and co-president of the GEO, addressed issues of tuition waivers, health care, financial accessibility and adequate compensation.

“Learning and Labor really belong together,” said Michael Simeone, graduate student and communications officer for the GEO. “They are on the Alma Mater for a reason.”

Simeone said the labor involved in teaching essential skills merits adequate living wages for TA’s. He also said that many have misconceptions about contract negotiations.

“Bargaining is a time for individual interests,” he said. “But it is also a time for mutual cooperation. Bargaining doesn’t have to be antagonistic.”

Throughout the rally, Rosa encouraged students to send letters to administrators and President White supporting the VCC, as well as express their support for EFCA to their congressional representatives.

Many of the groups involved are continuing their involvement through petitions and other rallies. Krystina Briones, co-chair of MEChA and sophomore in LAS, said that she hopes the University will soon match the levels of activism she has heard about on other campuses.

“(Others) say we’re pretty passive here,” she said. “We’re trying to change that.”