Swarthmore Labor Rights attracted almost thirty students to its inaugural meeting on Monday night. Alix Gould-Werth ’07, one of the founders of the group, explained that “there’s always been labor activism on Swarthmore’s campus… we’re trying to start an umbrella group that will last for a long time and that will ensure that there’s always an institutional support group where labor activism is going on.”
The earliest labor activism that Gould-Werth could recall was the group “Conscious Consumers,” which formed in the 1990s and worked on various issues involving fair trade goods and anti-sweatshop activism, including a successful initiative to serve fair trade coffee at Swarthmore.
More recent manifestations of labor rights activism at Swarthmore have included the successful Living Wage campaign, an attempt to secure card check neutrality towards the possible formation of a union in the spring of 2006, the recent Kick Coke initiative, and the ongoing Learning for Life program, which builds relationships between students and staff members. Why so much labor activism? Gould-Werth said that “our nation’s current administration has not been paying attention to the needs of working families, and I feel that a lot of our momentum comes out of that.”
Although the group has not committed towards any particular actions yet, they are interested in the three broad areas of staff appreciation on campus, legislative action, and labor support work with activists and unions in the greater Philadelphia area.
Some of the most popular ideas that were thrown around during the first meeting included launching a campaign to make Swarthmore-branded clothing sweatshop-free, writing a periodical that would raise awareness of these issues on campus, getting organic and fair trade food in Sharples, supporting local initiatives to raise the minimum wage, and working with activists in Philadelphia on issues of importance to immigrant workers.
One issue that immediately garnered support was the idea of planning staff appreciation events on campus, such as a possible Sharples cleanup where the employees would be able to go home early and a group of students would sweep the floors and clean the trays for them.
Carrie Floyd ’07 explained that “the staff does so much for this community, and while their work does not go unnoticed, it is often not fully appreciated. I want there to be more opportunities for students to show appreciation for staff.” When students gave their reasons for being there at the beginning of the meeting, one mentioned being “made uncomfortable by the relationships of students to staff on campus” and wanted to be a part of changing that.
While some students were primarily committed to improving staff-student relationships, other students had an admittedly anti-capitalist stance and were interested in exploring alternative economic systems. However, it seemed that everyone in the room agreed with one student’s statement that “as students, we have a lot of privilege, and we can utilize that power to make constructive changes in issues of economic justice.”
The next Swarthmore Labor Rights Meeting will be held next Monday at 10 PM in Kohlberg 116.