“Living Precariously: Stories from Our Community,” a panel discussion involving Georgetown University students, staff and faculty speaking about their experiences working in situations without financial stability or security in their jobs, took place Monday night in Copley Formal Lounge.
Tarshea Smith, a former cashier at Leo O’Donovan Hall, described the problems workers at O’Donovan Hall face, which led to her efforts to unionize the dining hall workers. Smith focused on a certain coworker named Miss Kathy who experienced workplace injustices.
“She [Miss Kathy] works on the salad bar, and she’s a black woman, a woman that had been working in the cafeteria probably for 32 years,” Smith said. “A manager called her a black b- – – -. And the workers, a couple of the workers heard him say it. But they were afraid to say anything, because they didn’t want to lose their jobs.”
Smith, who now works at Unite Here to support workers who face problems in the workplace, also reported how one day she had a seizure before a Leo’s shift. Because she failed to notify her manager two hours in advance, protocol dictated she be written up for the incident.
“I started explaining more and more, and [the manager] was like, ‘Tarshea, this is the policy. We don’t fire workers, they fire themselves,” Smith said.
Smith worked clandestinely with the help of Georgetown students to create a forum to address the workplace grievances of Georgetown staff. After Smith announced her plans to unionize the workers, in just two days’ time, over 95 percent of the 150 Leo’s workers unionized, and President John J. DeGioia wrote a letter to Aramark, their employer, to prevent the company from firing workers due to their new unionized status.
“My story is like so many other stories, so many other workers across the city are going through the same violations,” Smith said. “The only way workers can fight back is through organizing and unionizing.”
The crowd of about 30 students and faculty listened as Smith recounted these incidents and others at the event, organized by the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor as part of “Living in a Precarious World,” a Lannan Spring Literary Symposium and Festival focused on socioeconomic inequality, as explored through journalism, lectures and the arts.
“I knew Tarshea when I was a student here,” Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS ’13), a Kalmanovitz administrator, said. “I worked with her to organize the dining service workers at Leo’s. I think she’s such a wonderful storyteller.”
Nikki Lewis, a Washington native who has experienced similar precarious working conditions, talked about her experience growing up in the restaurant business.
“I, like many other young people, just started working in an environment where I didn’t know what my rights were,” Lewis said. “And I just kind of got acclimated to the poor working conditions, the $2.13 or $0.77 [hourly wage], with no benefits, the verbal abuse, the regular sexual harassment. I thought that’s just how things were.”
Lewis also described how working 60 to 70 hours per week in three jobs with no benefits led to her alcoholism and drug use for three years of her life.
“The stories were very powerful, very real. You could see, you can see the people, the individuals… you can see how real it was for them,” Sidney Wells (COL ’16) said. “I think I heard recently about the union movement, but I didn’t know how much was fought, how long it took … I’m also friends with a lot of the workers there. Hearing that stuff here at Georgetown, at Leo’s where I eat every day: it hits home.”
The panel’s final member was Ori Soltes, author of 15 books and an adjunct professor in Georgetown’s theology department. Soltes discussed his own precarious working experience as an adjunct, taking care to delineate between his struggles and those of the other panelists. Instead, Soltes focused on his disadvantages in the workplace when a full-time spot opened up in the theology department.
“The guy they ended up hiring was a:of course, much younger than I, b: [he had written] one book, that’s it and c: actually not properly speaking in the field [of theology], but the chairman knew that I would stick around. [They] knew that I wasn’t leaving.”
The event concluded with a look back to the beginnings of labor, and how the landscape has changed in recent years.
“What I seem to be seeing around me is the diminishing of, shall I call it, the values of democracy … where one of those values is: if you’re willing to work, you can make it,” Soltes said.