Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

The University of Southern California granted B.A.s Friday to more that 7,500 students who had struggled through four years of course work. But the school’s administration was granting nothing to the 350 food-service and dormitory employees who have been struggling for job security since the class of ’99 entered as freshmen. The average annual wage for these workers is slightly less than USC’s $21,000 annual tuition fee.

The cafeteria and housing staff, represented by Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 11, have been working without a contract since August 1995. Joined by clergy and several state legislators, they marched the campus perimeter Friday after ending a five-day fast protesting USC’s refusal to sign an agreement that guarantees their jobs against replacement by outside contractors. The contractor question became a sticking point in the spring of 1996, when janitors — some of them with 20 years at the campus — were suddenly laid off and told to reapply to Chicago-based Service Master, a new firm supplying USC’s custodial services.

Almost all the janitors were hired by the new contractor, but they lost ground on their benefits package. Moreover, 19 labor activists, including almost all those who spoke up at meetings with USC President Steven Sample, soon lost their jobs over minor infractions like arriving to work five minutes late, according to the AFL-CIO’s Eddie Iny.

Calling themselves “hungry for justice,” campus workers and supporters staged a fast for several days prior to Thanksgiving, but to little effect. Last week’s fast, however, received wide support from clergy and state legislators. Invoking the biblical tale, 40 clerics — many from churches near USC — signed a statement calling on the campus Goliath to give up its attempt to overpower the union Davids, and instead become a pioneer in social justice and employee relations. “Our community’s economic and social stability is threatened by USC’s attempt to replace its stable work force with low-wage, no-benefit, contingent and seasonal employment through subcontractors,” said the religious leaders.

State Senator Hilda Solis and San Gabriel Valley Assembly Members Gloria Romero and Marco Firebaugh spoke briefly at the Friday demonstrations, calling for the school to make a commitment to job security; East L.A. Assemblyman Gil Cedillo led the march around the campus border. A “community diploma” was awarded to graduate student (and fellow faster) Robert Wilton, one of a few dozen graduate students who organized support for the workers.

USC administrators contend that long-term guarantees are not offered to other campus employees, and that the school has made a generous offer to protect HERE workers against displacement. According to associate vice president for auxiliary services Philip Chiaramonte, a contract offer is on the table containing a USC pledge not to subcontract except in case of dire economic need. Asked whether workers should accept this large loophole, Chiaramonte argues that the school’s recent record proves its trustworthiness: “We just brought Starbucks, La Salsa and several other franchises onto campus. Over the objections of the franchisees, we insisted on running those operations with our own staff. These are not the actions of an employer looking for ways to franchise out.”

On Tuesday, LOCAL 11 president Maria Elena Durazo took her cause to City Hall, arriving in a wheelchair to ask the City Council’s assistance in resolving the dispute. Durazo was continuing her fast and had not eaten for nine days. She was seconded by Christine Chavez-Delgado, granddaughter of United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez (who often fasted for worker rights) and now a UFW organizer herself. Delgado read an open letter from her grandmother explaining that the family wanted USC’s memorial plaque to Chavez covered in black until “justice is done” and asking President Sample to resolve the dispute. “My late husband would not have wanted his life’s work to be honored by a plaque in a place where so many workers are suffering,” Chavez’s widow asserted.

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg volunteered to lead a delegation after the morning council session to open a discussion with President Sample about USC’s stance in the conflict, and was joined by Council Members Laura Chick, Mike Hernandez and Joel Wachs. However, when the delegation arrived at Sample’s office around 1 p.m., the campus chief was unavailable. By late Tuesday, he had still not responded to Goldberg’s messages.

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