AU Employees and Students Fight for Workplace Fairness


Taylor Kenkel

As college students, sometimes it’s easy to focus on papers and parties and forget to pause and appreciate the people who provide the university with basic and often underappreciated services.

AU’s Student Worker Alliance gave university employees a forum to talk about their experiences last week in an event that emphasized the need to support campus workers as they fight for improved contracts with their employers.

Kevin Nelson, who has worked in the dining hall at AU for nearly four years while pursuing a nursing degree at UDC, served as one of the main speakers at the event.  Bon Appetit caused controversy on campus when they fired Nelson in October for allegedly stealing food after he was prevented from taking a break and given permission by a supervisor to wrap up leftovers for later.

“There was a lot of interest around Kevin getting fired, because everyone knows him,” said Sara Jacobs, a member of the Student Worker Alliance.

Members of the Student Worker Alliance started a campaign to get Nelson rehired and draw attention to Bon Appetit’s labor practices.  Within days of his firing, comment cards asking about Kevin plastered the bulletin board in the dining hall and over 500 students had signed the petition in support of employee they affectionately referred to as “TDR Kevin.”  The students’ hard work paid off and just over a week after he was fired, Bon Appetit rehired Nelson and gave him full back pay.

Nelson said he didn’t believe two of his friends when they let him know about the student campaign to get him rehired.

“I looked on Facebook and saw the petition online for “TDR Kevin”—and I almost burst into tears,” Nelson said.  “People really know when you take pride in your work, and they’ll want you around for it.”

Work in the dining hall doesn’t just start and end at the food service stations.  Much of the work needed to keep the TDR takes place out of sight and mind for many students.

“You all don’t see me too often, because I’m down in the basement so much handling the deliveries as they come in,” said Bruce Magbie, a receiving room employee for Bon Appetit.

“I take real pride in my work—like Kevin does—when I’m down working in the receiving area,” Magbie said.  “But I’m overworked.  They expect so much from just one man.”

Tarshea Smith, a cashier at Georgetown for 19 years, said a supervisor wrote her up after she was hospitalized for epilepsy and couldn’t make it to work.  Although the incident upset Smith, she said she didn’t think she could do anything about it until a student stepped forward and encouraged her to fight for fairer treatment.

“That’s when I began to help organize my coworkers,” said Smith, who now works as a campaign organizer for Unite Here.  Foodservice employees at Georgetown unionized with the Local 23 chapter of Unite Here just over one year ago.

Even though Kevin is back at TDR and workers at local university are experiencing success in unionizing, members of the Student Worker Alliance say that the fight for workplace fairness is far from over.

Ayssa Tufano, a Student Worker Alliance member, said she hopes that the workers will get more time to prepare food, more work hours, a living wage and whistleblowing protection included in their contracts.

“I think it’s very clear the amount of pride and dedication they have in their job,” Tufano said.  “But worker justice issues shouldn’t necessarily be revolved around students.  What matters is workers having enough time to do their job and enough wages to support their families.”

Jacobs agreed, and expressed similar optimism that students will start taking notice.

“We go to a school that likes to pride itself on social justice—but when you look closely at what goes on at our university, that’s not what happens,” Jacobs said.  “It’s hard to go here and not notice the labor abuses that go on right at our own school.”

Photo by PinkMoose via Flickr.