02/22/2012 06:51 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

Why Cornel West Supports Unionizing Cafeteria Workers at University of Miami

When Cornel West made a surprise appearance at a University of Miami Vigil for foodservice workers last night, I was in shock. However, his support only affirmed what I already thought to be true: if we as students believe that everybody on our campus deserves respect, nothing should stop us from fighting alongside with them.

This story begins at the beginning of last summer. I was sitting down having dinner at the University of Miami food court, when an older Hispanic lady pulled me aside. She was a food service worker from my campus and wanted to talk to me about problems at her workplace, a pizzeria on our campus.

Other workers had told her that STAND (Students Toward A New Democracy), our student group on campus, was supportive when our janitors successfully unionized and bargained for fair wages and healthcare in 2006.

But now once again, workers were being treated unfairly and they were asking for our support. The lady told me that one of the restaurants on our campus was closing and laying off the employees with only a weeks worth of pay instead of reassigning them to one of the dozen other food restaurants. They were told that they could reapply within the company, but that no guarantee could be given that they would be rehired. Many of these workers had worked for up to ten years for on our campus.

It was soon clear to us that we needed to help these workers. As a grassroots organization, STAND doesn't follow an agenda of its own. Rather, we stand in solidarity with groups and communities in Miami that are not being treated fairly by our university's policies. The University of Miami is the second largest employer in Miami and thus has a massive influence over the economy and how workers are treated.

Over the summer, we collected petitions on our campus asking the university to demand from its contractor Chartwells to rehire those workers. Although few students were on campus over the summer break, it wasn't difficult to collect over 100 signatures. We were soon called by an administrator and told that the workers would be reassigned. We had learned something critical: we as students have power.

Talking to these food service workers, we soon realized that the underlying issue was that these workers had no voice to represent their interests. We started asking more questions: How were these workers doing? How was their pay? Do they have any benefits?

The salaries many of these workers are often below the living wage. Many of them have to support a family with less than $1300 a month in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. This makes even a subsidized health plan unaffordable. In the case that they wanted to cover two dependents in their insurance, they would have to pay a substantial portion of their paychecks.

After the majority of workers in the dining halls began expressing that they wanted to form a union, workers reported that Chartwells management began reacting. We know that in 2006 when the janitors on our campus fought for a union, workers were laid off for their support of the union. We are afraid that the same might happen again.

In order to make sure that our food service workers can exercise their right to form a union, STAND is mobilizing students on campus in order to tell the university to guarantee a fair process. Some weeks ago, our student newspaper covered the issue and endorsed our campaign.

Why am I fighting with these workers? What makes me expect that my university pays these people more salary and gives them better benefits than the minimum the market demands? How is it possible for an institution of higher learning to educate young minds, help to turn them into responsible critical citizens and leaders while at the same time ignoring the plight of those who work in my community? We cannot be critical students in the classroom and at the same time blind consumers when we go to lunch.

Sure, it would cost the university some money to let these workers unionize and negotiate a contract that includes a better pay and more benefits. However, every week we receive emails about expansions or million-dollar fundraising efforts. Thus, it is not beyond our means as a university to treat these food service workers with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Last night at our vigil to support their right to a union and living wage, Cornel West gave me hope; so did Father Corbishley from the St. Bede Episcopal Chapel and the large audience of students, 1Miami supporters and workers. If more students and faculty listened to them, and pressured their university to act responsibility and not tolerate worker abuses or subpoverty wages, we could all help shape a better world.