Student Labor Action Project helps workers form union at Penn
There were a lot of frustrated people in the University of Pennsylvania’s Falk Dining Commons this spring, and it had nothing to do with homework or exams.
Employees of Bon Appetit, the company that manages cafeterias in Penn’s Hillel building, were tired of low wages and poor treatment. They had no paid time off and no job security. At the end of the semester, they would all be dismissed without guarantee of rehire in the fall.
The workers were ready to begin a public organizing drive, and they knew that student support would be critical to their success. That’s where the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) came into the picture.
“SLAP supports the growing movement for economic justice and develops campaigns to win concrete victories for working families,” says Brandon Van Gorder, a member of the student-led group. “Though workers and students interact with each other daily, these interactions often have the unequal dynamics of ‘the servers’ and ‘the served.’”
During SLAP’s meetings with the Falk workers, those dynamics started to change. “When you look the people who serve you in the eye, you start thinking differently about the value of labor,” says SLAP’s Penny Jennewein. “One day, a worker who usually attended our meetings wasn’t there. The reason was because he’d had a heart attack. But he was still required to work the next day.” These work conditions weren’t just troubling, the students realized. They were unacceptable.
SLAP steadily built student support for the workers’ campaign. They led on-campus demonstrations, organized direct actions, and hosted social events such as an on-campus barbecue for students and workers alike.
The group’s efforts quickly paid off. Falk staff won union recognition in May, and the other Bon Appetit workers followed in September. Now, they all have higher wages, better benefits, time off, and job security. “It was amazing,” Jennewein says. “It really shows how powerful workers can be when students and community are behind them.”
Backed by their victories and a grant from the Future Fund, SLAP will expand to educate and mobilize students around both local and international campaigns. “Workers now feel comfortable sharing their stories with us,” Van Gorder says. “SLAP can use these relationships to help more students realize their unique power to create change.”