Moments before taking the stage at the University of Miami's 8,000-seat Bank United Center Tuesday to deliver remarks on the school's 50th anniversary of desegregation, outspoken author, professor, activist, and prominent Bill O'Reilly opponent Dr. Cornel West made a surprise stop in the name of solidarity.
"I was told there are some precious, priceless food workers who are not being treated as they ought," the well-known Princeton professor said, taking the podium at an on-campus candlelight vigil tied to Black History Month in support of workers employed by Chartwells, a food services company that staffs most of UM's on-campus dining options.
"Let's salute them," he continued. "Let us salute them. It's their humanity, their dignity, their sanctity we are here to affirm."
West told the crowd he didn't want to come on campus without addressing the issue, having received emails detailing the Chartwells employees' fight. With some workers making hardly more than minimum wage even after 10 years with the company, Chartwells employees are moving to form a union to demand increased benefits, higher pay and better working conditions.
"It's a beautiful thing to see people from all different colors and cultures here to fight for justice," West observed, surveying the crowd before alluding to the reason for his visit to Coral Gables: "You can't talk about desegregation over 50 years ago -- of course, by desegregation you're talking about the vicious legacy of white supremacy -- you can't fight the vicious legacy of white supremacy without also fighting the vicious legacies of male supremacy and the vicious legacies of imperial arrogance and vicious legacies of class exploitation and vicious legacies of homophobia and anti-Semitism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim and anti-Latino and these racist immigration policies and practices around the nation.
"So we're here to let our brothers and sisters trying to form a union know that we are behind them. I am behind them. Use my name any time, any place, any way you want," he said to applause, before hugging workers and heading over to the BUC.
Tuesday's vigil was organized with help from on-campus activist group STAND (Students For a New Democracy), whose members believe the UM community has a call to support the fight of on-campus workers for fair treatment -- even if, as in the case of Chartwells, they are not directly employed by the university.
"Employees, students, faculty, and administration have the opportunity to set wages and benefits that reflect the work that Chartwells food-service workers provide," said STAND member Dylan Beasley. "The campus community has a responsibility to set high standards in Miami-Dade county to ensure that workers have access to a dignified life. Supporting our workers is a duty that we cannot neglect."
Hoping to repeat the success of UM's UNNICO janitors and landscapers who unionized in 2006 and successfully negotiated better pay, seniority, and paid healthcare, Chartswell employees have reached out to the Service Employee’s International Union. Worker Estee Chandler said she can't afford the company's health care plan despite five years of employment.
"For me to have been working at Chartswell all of this time, I only make a little over $9 [an hour]," Chandler said. "I can't even afford to get healthcare insurance for myself, it is very expensive."
A Chartswell spokesperson told The Miami Hurricane this month they support "employees making an informed and educated decision whether or not to join a workers union," but one employee at UM told the paper the company screened a film that showed unions in a negative light, and others complained managers have been intimidating on the subject.
In a published editorial, Hurricane staff argued Chartswell employees deserved the same success as the UNNICO union: "At every booth in the food court and dining halls, Chartwells workers are the ones making our food, serving it and making sure we’re satisfied. For this reason alone, we should care that they too are satisfied."