I was standing behind two barred wooden doors, wet from the rain that had drenched many visiting parents. But inside at
Helm Hall Held Auditorium the mood was much warmer. As the union president’s voice rang through the room triumphantly, many of the Barnard workers, friends I had made over the last few weeks, waved for me to come inside. I watched the group nodding in relief, understanding that everything was going to be ok.
As I waited in the hall for the voting procedures to come to close, my friend Cheryl Black came in running to see us. One of her coworkers, Tim, had mixed feelings about the newly approved contract. To this Black erupted, “Because of the faculty support, because of the student support, we moved from ridiculous givebacks to where we are now. You have to let them know we’re not by ourselves. We’re everywhere and we’re united.” More ladies streamed out to see us, shouting in jubilation.
But I’m a cynic. Though we worked very hard, I didn’t think we had really made an impact. Our organizing had gone on for weeks, but for so long no solution was in sight. When we walked in, the workers, who had gathered there to vote on their new contract, stood up to applaud. In all honesty, I almost started crying when they came up to give us hugs and shake our hands. The line between worker and student really had been erased; though we came from such different places, we were not intruders, just friends. It was only then that it dawned on me that we had made a difference.
The voting itself was mostly a technicality. The workers more than anything else felt relief to know they would keep their basic benefits. Now, they will no longer have to sit through the long ride home, worrying about whether they can afford to see a doctor, whether they must choose between their children and their jobs, and whether they have legal protection if sexually harassed. The fact that the Barnard administration would even consider putting them through this is appalling.
But some of the workers I sat down with saw the settlement as a sign the Spar administration may finally be treating them with respect again. Brown, the union’s Unit Chair, spoke about the administration’s attitude, “Sometimes, I feel the trustees care more about how’s it gonna look … I think they quietly give us our respect because they know in the end we’re still doing your work.”
While the trust will be difficult to build back up, the bond between students and workers grew immensely. One of the Barnard student leaders Jamila Barra spoke to me about this new feeling in the air, “We established a lot of new worker student solidarity that didn’t exist before and it’s actually like a real sense of community, the kind the administration often pretends to care about. I go down stairs in the morning and Clive is there … You meet other people and there’s more of a feeling that we inhabit a space together.”
Looking back on our impact, I realize that though our group Students Support Barnard Workers only lasted for a month, so much was accomplished. We flyered all over both campuses, knocked on doors all over Barnard, and talked to thousands of people. For our first public meeting 100 students showed up. That momentum carried forward to our “celebration action” at Founders’ day, drawing the ire of Public Safety, who had decided to try and foil our devious plot to hand out papers.
We drew direct support from a wide variety of groups including Amnesty International, CU Dems, and the International Socialist Organization. We even got nationally renowned activists like Angela Davis and Cornel West and famous author Alice Walker to express support for our cause. Our networks were growing so quickly that even the administration felt our presence – Dean of Students Avis Hinkon refused to answer our questions, COO Greg Brown successfully evaded one of our interviewers, and President Spar strangely could never fit us into her office hours. In fact, some of the workers even surmised our plans to protest President Spar’s speech to parents forced the university to take a fairer approach.
As a freshman at Columbia, I was surprised to find many upperclassmen jaded to the possibility of changing anything. They refused to get involved because they feel there really is little for them to actually “do.” Most people just sit, talk, and co-sponsor. While many activist groups facilitate excellent discussions and study groups, they often preach to the choir. To get people involved you have to give them something to which they can relate; you have to give them something to fight for. The face of a Barnard office worker is a reality people can’t ignore. If we want to make a difference in our community, this energy cannot dissipate. It must be transformed into real action.