‘Hold Aramark Accountable’ rally pushes students to act
Organizer Carlos Vera helped share workers’ stories, urged students to fight for change
A crowd of students and faculty gathered on the Letts-Anderson Quad Wednesday to protest the poor treatment of Aramark workers at the University.
Senior and founder of the “Exploited Wonk” campaign Carlos Vera organized the event, which drew attention to the abuses several Aramark workers report that they have faced.
“I wanted you guys to hear their stories, direct from the source because there is power in storytelling,” Vera said. “But enough is enough.”
According to the seven workers present, they have all been mistreated by their Aramark supervisors, specifically naming Maria Sanchez, Miriam Lazo and Roberto Chavez. Despite having proper documentation, the workers claimed that Sanchez and Lazo have accused them of lying and that no one at Aramark or AU has done anything to help them.
Alba Vigil, a housekeeping worker that formerly went by the alias Esperanza out of fear of her superiors, told the crowd that she used to clean the library. One day, she said she was told to move beds in Centennial Hall and hurt her back. The next day, she said she came back in unbearable pain. Vigil said that Lazo did not help her and ignored her doctor’s orders to avoid picking up objects weighing more than 30 pounds, assigning her to move more beds instead, despite the fact that she had a written doctor’s note. Additionally, she said that Aramark did not follow through with an investigation of the situation.
“I wrote out [the transcript of a] 32 minute [interview] that we did with [Vigil], and she’s gone through hell,” said Jose Gaona, who Vera announced at the rally will assume the leadership role of the Exploited Wonk campaign next year.
According to Vera during the rally, Vigil can now barely walk, needs to receive steroid injections in her back every six months and has a failing kidney. He also said that Vigil now cleans University President Neil Kerwin’s personal home. Because she spoke out against Aramark, Vera, who translated and spoke for Vigil during the rally, said that Vigil has been assigned to clean the entire Letts Hall as punishment.
Vera said during his remarks that Vigil was the reason he started the Exploited Wonk campaign in 2014.
“In 2014, I called [Vigil] and asked if she wanted a tour of the White House,” Vera said. “And she sounded sick and she told me, ‘Carlos, I would love to go, but I can barely walk. I’m using a walker.’ She ended up using a walker because, like I said, for three years they never respected her medical documentation. Now, as a result, she’s going to have problems with her body for the rest of her life.”
The other workers that gave testimony or allowed Vera to share their stories, Maria, Carla, Blanca and Maria Diaz, said they have had similar experiences of abuse.
Maria said that she hurt her foot in an accident at home, but the work load she was given at AU exacerbated the injury to the point that her doctor said her foot would never heal. Vera said that Carla was put to work cleaning floors the day after a surgery.
According to Vera, Blanca slipped on ice and hurt her hip during a snow day earlier this year, but her supervisor did not give her time to recover. Maria, Blanca and Diaz said they have had to clean entire buildings by themselves without proper tools to do so after having complained about their treatment.
Looking to the future of Exploited Wonk, Vera said that the only way to make progress is to work as a community.
“Everyone has to do their part,” Vera said. “We can’t just focus on one activism [cause] and forget about this because what they’re going through is modern day slavery. AU in many ways is very much like a plantation. How is it that the African American workers are the ones serving your food, the Latinos are cleaning, Caucasians are the ones teaching?”
Vera expressed his concern during the rally with students picking up this movement after he graduates and emphasized how even if someone is not interested in social justice, this issue is something that directly affects them.
“If AU wants to keep on subcontracting, that’s fine, but we need to create accountability,” Vera said. “We need to set a standard where stuff like this cannot continue, because if not, then we’re not American University.”
Gabriela Reyes Ventura, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs, said she came to the rally because she saw too much injustice occurring, and if AU was not going to take action, the students have to.
“I would like to see a change in management, with someone getting transferred or fired. There needs to be a change in the whole attitude in the way they approach workers,” Reyes Ventura said.
Jacob Schmidt, a junior in the School of International Service who was also present at the rally, said that he has been disappointed in the student response to this issue.
“I came [to the rally] today because AU should care about all members of its community,” Schmidt said. “Students should care about the people who take care of them.”
Exploited Wonk has started an online petition, which currently is about 200 signatures less than its goal of 2,500, to demand that the University remove Sanchez and Lazo from their current positions and to force Aramark to implement policies that guarantee a fair workload for all employees. Vera said that for every person that signs the petition, an email is sent to Kerwin, Aramark and the workers union.
In an example of change that has occurred since the beginning of the workers’ rights movement, Vera announced that AU scholarships will now be offered to the children of Aramark workers, though that information had not yet officially been made public by the University. Additionally, Vera said that Aramark is currently under investigation by the Committee for Social Responsibility at AU, made up of administrators, students and faculty.
“These are things that people have been fighting for decades. But it only happened because this became a community issue,” Vera said. “You start winning when you have a kid that’s in a fraternity, when you have someone on the rugby team saying ‘You know what, I’m not really into social justice, but I know the worker on my floor and this shouldn’t be happening. How can I help?’”