The Works AU aims to spark advocacy through information
Group aims to spearhead renewed workers’ rights advocacy among AU students
A new workers’ rights organization at AU launched in January with the goal of spreading awareness of workers’ rights activism taking place across Washington and at AU.
The Works AU, founded and led by Residence Hall Association chief of staff Tom Lebert, seeks to promote workers’ rights activism by AU students by directing them to events around the city.
“One of the things that I wanted to alleviate was activists on campus not knowing about [protests and events, and] not having an open platform for this type of information,” Lebert said. “I wanted to create that.”
The Works AU primarily operates through its social media accounts and newsletter, through which it recaps the latest legislative trends and shares links to local activist events. While based at AU, Lebert said that given the intangibility of some of the groups’ actions, his group’s focus is on the broad issue of workers’ rights and even includes national legislation.
AU students have a long history of workers’ rights activism, with the Student Worker Alliance leading numerous efforts to protect Aramark workers on AU’s campus under alum Carlos Mark Vera’s leadership.
Vera was able to mobilize students around the #ExploitedWonk campaign, culminating in an April 2016 rally outside Letts and Anderson Halls. But, following Vera’s graduation, the movement has not been as prominent in student life. The Student Worker Alliance, which did not respond to a request for comment, has not been active on social media since early 2018, leaving the University without a dedicated student group for workers’ rights.
The controversial firing of Aramark employee Anthony Randolph in September, reported on by The Eagle, brought renewed interest toward workers’ rights. Randolph was later reinstated to his position at AU.
“I think one of the issues that we have is that there wasn't like a very coordinated campaign to protect Anthony's rights,” said sophomore Sam Sherwood, one of The Works AU’s original team members. “We might not have had as big of an impact as we could have had if we had a more coordinated organization.”
Sherwood said he believes that the group, despite its broader focus, could help develop an interest in workers’ rights on campus.The issue re-emerged during the recent Student Government executive board elections, when candidates spoke about the importance of rehiring workers under a new food provider and preserving their pensions.
To further student interest in the cause, The Works AU recently held its first event on campus in coordination with AU College Democrats on April 8, at which about 30 attendees were invited to write letters to their representatives about three workers’ rights-related bills related to family medical leave and the gender pay gap.
“The idea for an event like this came about during the government shutdown,” Lebert said. “One of the first things that we got involved with was sharing action and events protesting the government shutdown.”
While attendees were eager to write their letters, awareness of the organization remains low.
“I'm very passionate about AU College Democrats,” said freshman Katia Portela at the event, who said she had not heard of the group until that evening. “I am particularly passionate about workers’ rights after Anthony Randolph.”
His Lebert said that for now, his group is focused on local D.C. activism.
“We’re just trying to boost these unions and local workers’ rights groups and get the word out to students,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's April 2019 print edition.