A specter haunts the university: the permanence of workers’ space and time

In Washington, DC, the George Washington University (GWU) fired more than half of the faculty at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The decision came roughly one year after the acquisition of the Corcoran School by GWU. One professor, Antje Kharachi, whose contract was terminated, said, “The past few years have been absolutely exhausting. As much as I loved the Corcoran, I feel relief that the seemingly endless wait is finally over. We’ve been lied to, undermined, disrespected, while trying to hold the [Corcoran School] together for our students.” Kharachi was just informed her contract would be terminated, and she felt relief. This comes on the heels of the firings of two of the University’s Women’s Studies Program’s most widely known adjunct faculty in an effort to “restructure” the program at GWU. Two months prior to the Corcoran layoffs, GWU announced they would also be restructuring their dining program. The over forty workers, many of whom have spent anywhere from one to five decades working in some capacity with the dining program, have recently lost the permanence of the space they have made their livelihoods for decades. Both faculty and dining workers had heard only vague reports of their future employment at the University, and spent years reporting to work under the presumption that any day could be the day their jobs were lost.

“All right, Chesimard, pack your things. You’re being moved.”
“Moved? Where?”
“You’ll find out when you get there.”
“Then i’d like to call my lawyer.”
“You can call your lawyer when you get where you’re going.”

In Assata: An Autobiography, Assata Shakur describes the physical space of her incarceration in and around the Middlesex County Jail: “My abrupt transfer form one jail to another, without either notice to my lawyers or explanation to me, was a scenario that would be repeated over and over again during the next few years.” We often envision and discuss the space of incarceration as one of stagnant permanence. For Assata Shakur, and many others, along with solid cell walls and the indefinite permanence of solitary confinement, space also involved abrupt relocations without warning. It dictated and severely limited her relationships with her lawyers, friends and family. According to a Department of Justice report, nearly every state’s Department of Corrections “does or can transfer inmates to destinations in other states.” In Washington D.C. alone, one in five people incarcerated on felony charges is imprisoned more than 500 miles from the District of Columbia.

In relation to global militarization and securitization, violence and displacement, or “expulsion”, the impermanence of space operates as psychological warfare from individuals, such as Assata Shakur, to entire local communities to millions of people. These displacements benefit the systems of expulsion by expelling people from both land and sense of self. People are forced out of their sense of permanence and community. Landless, homeless, and without anchor, people experience loss of community as a kind of radical individuality that is not conducive to pushing back against the forces that lead to Assata’s incarceration, the ambiguity of future employment in campus dining, or displacements on a massive scale.

At GWU, the fear and unknowing about whether or not one’s job would continue to exist instilled in many a sense of despair. Lack of communication and vague non-promises about what comes next produces a demoralization that keeps workers in a state of anxiety, a state of heightened individuality that creates an even more challenging environment for collective organizing. These decisions are not specific to the George Washington University alone, but rather emblematic of a broader trend in higher education, and in the global economy as a whole. The precariousness of work has come to play a central role in efforts to financially, psychologically, and emotionally control huge swaths of people. To understand both the permanence and impermanance of space is to better understand the precariousness of work. The structuring of this new impermanent work environment leaves many with hyper-individualistic sense of despair – kept in the dark about their own time and futures, and left feeling powerless.

Workers in the struggle to put an end to on-call scheduling and reclaim some permanence in their work lives; students, workers, staff, and faculty at universities demanding accountability and transparency for administrator’s decisions to cut budgets and restructure programs; communities organizing to be informed about rights and resistance in the face of raids that fill the beds of immigrant detention centers globally are already challenging the impermanence of space. It’s time to demand full transparency and accountability from administrators as they dangle workers’ futures over a ledge, it’s time to end the practice of prisoner relocations beyond the reach of their families and loved ones. When we challenge the logics and practices that leave us feeling powerless and alone, we win. These systems are allowed to thrive when the individual is adrift amongst a sea of individuals, and to assert that a radical collectivity is not only ideal, but also necessary.

(Photo Credit: Guido van Nispen / Truthout)

Cleaning worker Julia Hidalgo is showing us the university-to-come

Julia Hidalgo

Every summer, workers clean the dormitories of George Washington University in Washington, DC, to prepare for the following school year.  This past summer, Julia Hidalgo was one of those workers.

Julia, along with other workers who employed by the company BRAVO! Building Services, contracted by GW, cleaned three of the largest dorms on campus.  One of these dorms, Thurston Hall, has a well-documented cleanliness problem due to GW administrative neglect: exposed pipes, dead bugs, and cramped quarters that repeatedly cause fire injuries to students.

Cleaning these dorms was surely no easy task for Julia and the other workers, who had to work 12-hour shifts for two weeks.  After putting in those hours, BRAVO! fired Julia and every single one of the GW cleaning workers they had hired in May.

After these many hours of labor—many of which were overtime—Julia and the rest of the GW cleaning workers waited for their paychecks, which never came.  Days turned into weeks, and still BRAVO! did not pay the workers their money.  Julia had wanted to spend her paycheck on childcare for her fifteen-month-old daughter, but could not.

Eventually, the GW cleaning workers took action.  Julia writes:

For weeks, we repeatedly showed up asking for our paychecks, but BRAVO! refused. Left with no other options, we took our story public. Many of us were afraid to speak out, worried that it would impact our chances at future employment. But we stuck together.  It was only after we held a public demonstration on GW’s campus that the company finally agreed to pay us for hours worked. In total, they made us wait six full weeks before offering us our paychecks.

Six weeks is a long time to wait for payment, and many workers had to take out loans to survive until they could get their checks.  Julia and the other GW cleaning workers (whom, as student organizers at the university point out, are mostly women) are leading a fight to get the money they deserve.  The workers are demanding the legally mandated compensation for the time they have spent without their back pay.  They are demanding that BRAVO! and GW respect and value them, their work, and their time.  In response to BRAVO! and GW ignoring them, the workers have started a petition demanding their proper compensation.

The fact that the GW cleaning workers are organizing to reclaim their wages matters, because women worker organizing matters, especially in universities.  Women workers in universities, many of them women of color, experience some of the worst working conditions, whether in cleaning, in food service, or in teaching.  Organizing against wage theft means building power for women workers in precarious job conditions.  This organizing also matters because corporate universities routinely hyper-exploit women in all areas of the university, including students who have survived sexual assault.  Organizing encourages coalition building among often-unlikely partners, especially students, faculty and custodial staff.

Julia Hidalgo and the GW cleaning workers are showing us the university-to-come, where education does not depend on exploitation.  The rest of us must do our best to make sure we keep that struggle moving forward.

Please sign Julia Hidalgo’s petition to demand that BRAVO! Building Services pays the GW cleaning workers the wages they are owed.  You can find the petition here: http://www.coworker.org/petitions/bravo-cleaners-pay-us-what-we-re-owed

 

(Photo Credit: GW Hatchet)

Real Food, Real Jobs, Real Women of Color, Real Workers, Real Hope

In mid-March of this year, a dining hall worker at The George Washington University in Washington, DC named Rochelle Kelly was fired.  Rochelle has worked in the GW dining hall, J Street, for over twenty-seven years.

Why was Rochelle fired?  She had to take time off to care for her husband, who had a stroke.  Then, Rochelle had a heart attack, and took more time off.  This time off is perfectly legal.  The general manager at J Street fired Rochelle anyway, breaking both the law and any sense of common decency.

Rochelle is a recognizable face at J Street and in the university community at large.  She is a leader in the dining worker union, and is friends with many people that frequent the dining hall.  Students, faculty, and others at GW noticed her absence immediately.

GW contracts its dining services to a multinational corporation named Sodexo.  While the workers at J Street face firings, decreasing wages, and disrespect from management, Sodexo makes millions off its contract with the university, and hundreds of millions more worldwide.  Sodexo is a company known for workers’ rights abuses, especially against Black women.  J Street employees are mostly people of color (Rochelle is Black) and Sodexo management is mostly white (like the general manager who fired Rochelle).

Because Rochelle does not currently work for Sodexo, she cannot claim any benefits provided by the company.  She must now work to find ways to pay for health care, food, and other necessities.  Sodexo and GW exploit Rochelle’s extra work—whether it’s care work for her husband or for herself—in order to increase corporate profits, like so many others in debt at the university.  The complete devaluation of the time needed for Rochelle’s care work mirrors the historical devaluation of Black women’s care work in the United States.

But Rochelle’s situation is not only one of misery.  It is also one of hope.  Along with other workers, students, faculty, and community supporters, Rochelle is organizing to get her job back, and to increase the power of dining workers at GW and across Washington, DC.  Over four hundred supporters signed letters to Sodexo, students and workers did a delegation to the general manager’s office, and dining workers at another one of GW’s campuses voted to unionize.

That’s just the beginning.  Women are leading, organizing, teaching, and working to build a better world.  They are doing that through local, national, and global struggles, like the Real Food, Real Jobs campaign.  They are joined by students, workers, and all others who work for a just world.

If you would like to join in solidarity with Rochelle and other food workers, please visit UNITE HERE Local 23’s website and sign their Real Food, Real Jobs pledge here.  If you would like to get involved in the campaign at GW, contact the GW Progressive Student Union at gwprogress@gmail.com.  To leave a message to the Sodexo general manager at J Street, contact Bernadette Thomas at bernadette.thomas@sodexo.com

(Photo Credit: Real Food Real Jobs / Facebook)

In the capital of the greatest incarcerating country in the world

On March 28, Ruth Wilson Gilmore gave the annual Yulee Endowed Lecture, hosted by the Women’s Studies Program at the George Washington University. Her talk opened with a slide showing an NAACP billboard that said, against the Statue of Liberty as background,

Welcome to America home to
5% of the world’s people &
25% of the world’s prisoners.

This is the same America that is home to 5% of the world’s population and produces 27.8% of the world’s greenhouse gases from fossil fuel, according to the National Environment Trust.

Pollution and incarceration reveal a dreadful, man-made reality. For both prison and pollution, the United States tries to change its image rather than face up to the reality. The United States is the primary source of world pollution and of prison practices. A prison binge has been built on the disregard of women, of people of color, of the poor. High levels of pollution have been built on absurd consumerism passed off as a social good. Meanwhile, for many, these add up to a cruel reality.

United States administration after administration has produced more laws to incarcerate more people and more “Acts” to cover up the high level of emission of Green House gases and other pollutants. Images of poor people, especially of women of color, abusing the welfare became as visible as the images of the destruction of the “Commons” became invisible. What one hand giveth, the other taketh away.

In her lecture, Ruth Wilson Gilmore talked about the reality of incarceration.  Her book, The Golden Gulag Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, started as a community project: a research for Mothers ROC (Mothers Reclaiming Our Children) in California, women who know too well the reality of and reasons for incarceration. They needed “a non-lawyer activist with research skills, access to university libraries, and a big vocabulary, to help them.” Gilmore fit the bill perfectly.

In her book, Gilmore relocates the two laws that sent the Mothers’ children to prison—the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act and the “three strikes and you’re out” law—into their historical political economic context. Ruthie, as everyone calls her, presented on the particular history of capitalism in the United States, the story of opportunity fertilized with inequality and racism. Her lecture was called “What Would Harriet Do? Unfinished Liberation or the Dangers of Innocence”.

Harriet is Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman’s story exemplifies the root of the social and racial American construction. For Gilmore, Tubman was a designer and a political artist. Tubman’s story of unwavering determination to bring slaves of the south to freedom speaks directly to today’s “zero tolerance.” As the false stories told of African and African-derived people helped to justify the slavery of thousands of women, men and children of African descent, so today’s false story of “zero tolerance” attacks African Americans. 65 million people are currently banned from employment because of previous convictions, and those people live in the communities that most need steady employment.

The following day Ruth Wilson Gilmore continued the conversation in Dan Moshenberg’s Seminar, “Women In and Beyond the Global Prison.”

Again, the discussion focused on the construction of images, from the witch-hunt that put women back in the “domus,” to the “Reaganomic” image of the welfare-queen that re-segregated poor and working African American women, thereby legitimating the re-appropriation of power and global capital. Welfare-queen became pathology. To unpack that pathology, we must learn to study “the genealogy of the phrase,” and thereby reinforce the importance of historical consciousness.

Gilmore brings to light the reality of the political economic project that requires mass incarceration. That project is genocidal, and that project of mass incarceration speaks directly to the situation of health care and reproductive rights in the United States.

Slavoj Žižek recently argued, “one of the strategies of totalitarian regimes is to have legal regulations (criminal laws) so severe that, if taken literally, everyone is guilty of something. But then their full enforcement is withdrawn… At the same time the regime wields the permanent threat of disciplining its subjects.”

I am not saying that we live in a true totalitarian regime. That is not the question. The question is whether we understand that these ‘all-guilty’ laws work to control and subjugate certain sections of the population, such as the African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and also women. Of course, women intersect with the other “guilty” populations. In many states, laws limiting women’s reproductive rights are blossoming, and punishment and incarceration await the women who try to secure or wield their rights. At the same time, the story of Trayvon Martin’s assassination fits this framework of being eternally guilty. His corpse was tested for drugs and alcohol. His shooter never had to be tested and is still alive and free.

There are many other stories that show that the current rule of law is an active political-economic tool. Ben Saperstein and May Young, two activists from North Carolina, attended the seminar with Gilmore and Moshenberg. They were there to learn and exchange ideas for their own struggle. They are involved with the Greensboro Legal Fund, which works to bring to light the fate of members of a Latino organization that has been wrongfully accused of racketeering, and has been incarcerated for political reasons.

The exchanges among activists and scholars from North Carolina, Washington, New York and beyond showed the importance of research working with activism. In this time of neoliberal surge, as Žižek remarked, “what unites us is the same struggle”. In this struggle, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s inspirational work reminds us of the importance of excellent scholarship as a means of resistance.

 

(Photo and Image Credit: astropressdc.com)