03/11/2013 02:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Shalala Must Prevent Another 2006 Fiasco

The University of Miami must address the labor practices of their food service workers to confront the NCAA.

The last thing that the University of Miami needs as it confronts the NCAA's recent Notice of Allegations against the school's athletics department is a student protest. Unfortunately for UM administrators, a protest has already been staged.

On February 22, more than 200 students participating in the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) conference at UM rallied against the labor practices of the school's food service provider, Chartwells. UM student organization STAND (Students Towards a New Democracy) led the protest of students from universities across the country.

The demonstrators chanted and picketed in front of UM's dining halls, participated in a flash-mob at the school's food court and chanted in front of UM President Donna Shalala's office while a STAND representative requested a meeting with Shalala. According to STAND member Antoine Romulus, Shalala's secretary assured to him that Shalala will read any email that STAND about requesting a meeting.

The chants included:

Shalala, get off it, put people over profit!

Hey, Shalala, we, we, we, we, we love our workers. Hey, Shalala, re-re-re-re-respect the union (sung to the tune of PSY's "Gangnam Style").

For something so wrong, this has taken way too long!

UM has not released a statement about the protest, and when I requested a statement from the Office of Media Relations they did not issue one.

The USAS demonstration was not the first time people have stood up to the labor practices of Chartwells at UM. Almost a year before Friday's protest, professor and activist Cornel West spoke in solidarity with UM Chartwells workers moving to form a union.

Students spoke up last October, when a beloved dining hall cashier was fired for letting a man walk past her register to use the bathroom. The cashier, Betty Asbury, was eventually reinstated, but only after an exhausting student effort. At the time, STAND wrote a petition demanding Asbury's reinstatement that collected more than 3,800 signatures. STAND also hosted a student rally, and members spoke to local media outlets about the controversy.

The student effort compelled Vice President for Student Affairs Pat Whitely and UM Student Government to request Chartwells to conduct an investigation of the dismissal. Chartwells complied with Whitely's request, which demonstrates that the administration can assume an intervening role. I firmly believe that the UM administration's pressure on Chartwells was the most important factor leading to Asbury's reinstatement.

According to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizer Erik Brakken, the UM administration is not interfering with the labor practices of Chartwells because it is not its duty as the company's contractor. Brakken called their approach, "hands-off." He does not agree that UM administrators have to take a hands-off approach to dealing with a company that conducts business on their campus.

"We want Shalala to take a stance," said Romulus before he led the demonstration to Shalala's office on Friday. Romulus summarized the goal of the demonstration: Shalala must confront the labor practices of Chartwells.

The rally came at a very inconvenient time for Shalala, who released a statement to the NCAA that week about the NCAA's Notice of Allegations to the UM athletics department.

The NCAA accuses UM of a "lack of institutional control." Even though the statement refers to the athletics department, the UM administration's hands-off approach to addressing Chartwells could be construed as another instance of a lack of institutional control. Even though it appears that Shalala and UM have the upper hand against the NCAA allegations, a complaint of lack of institutional control elsewhere at the school could dampen the university's momentum.

After the NCAA Notice of Allegations was released, Shalala took a firm stance against the NCAA and criticized the validity of the investigation. Shalala's firm stance demonstrates two points that are relevant to addressing Chartwells labor practices:

First, it demonstrates that Shalala can be resolute. Her statement, "many of the allegations included in the Notice of Allegations remain unsubstantiated," is firm and confrontational. I believe that she is capable of demonstrating the same resolve with Chartwells.

Second, Shalala can recognize a dubious investigation, as shown by her statement to the NCAA, "many of the charges brought forth are based on the word of a man [Nevin Shapiro] who made a fortune by lying."

Chartwells, too, appears to have conducted a dubious investigation of Asbury's dismissal. In the statement preceding Asbury's reinstatement, the company never addressed whether she actually let a man pass by her cashier without paying. And Asbury was not returned to her position as cashier, which limits her contact with students. Most importantly, the investigation was conducted internally.

Shalala's patience with the NCAA investigation, which had 20 percent of its evidence discarded, is wearing thin. She must not allow the same sort of dubious investigations to occur in regards to the food service.

One sign at the demonstration simply said, "2006 Unicco, 2013 Chartwells." The sign refers to the 2006 UM Unicco janitorial strike. At a time when UM is confronting the NCAA, it cannot afford to come under fire once again for undermining workers rights.