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Service workers as second-class citizens

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NOVEMBER 24, 2013

For all its daring, colossal beauty, professor Alexander Coward’s recent widely circulated email made a poor comparison that struck me. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me. Coward wrote a letter to the freshmen in his Math 1A class who were scared about the upcoming strike. The letter told them to be brave, that they are truly brilliant students and why their education matters.

Yet professor Coward also wrote, “Many times in history (political events have) done so with far more violence and disruption than a strike, and it is wise to be psychologically prepared for this fact.”

Coward is wrong to associate strikes with monumental political violence. I know this is probably a careless mistake. He even says “he didn’t intend it as a missive against the striking workers themselves.”

Even though I like his letter, I feel compelled to explain the turmoil I feel by this minor comparison. It is a comparison I see being made frequently. The anxiety Coward’s freshmen felt about the strike is an anxiety that pervades our community. Strikes bring to mind fire alarms going off; police with face masks, shields and clubs; students chanting, hollering and screaming.

The association Coward and his students make with campuswide strikes was no doubt partly forged by the nationally televised Occupy Cal protests in November 2011. Our administration willingly brought in riot police to crack down on protesters. Coward, probably unintentionally, links this violence to strikers on the picket lines rather than the riot police brought to campus by our administration. While Coward is right to link AFSCME workers and Occupiers, they are connected by their peaceful demonstration for social and economic justice — not mob violence.

It is wrong to suggest that their strike, like violence, is a recurring, elusive force that mars the arc of history.

I don’t want my fellow students to be afraid of their custodial and food-service staff going on strike. They service the dining halls where students eat, dorms where freshmen live and the lecture hall where Math 1A is held. As members of our academic community, AFSCME workers deserve our full respect and attention.

It’s noble of Coward to accept that he might be wrong. I think he didn’t mean to sound callous. Still, it is hurtful that Coward says, “You really are amazing. I’ve taught students all over the world, and I’ve never seen a group of students so talented” and for a split second compares AFSCME workers with whoever appears from the shadows of your imagination when he says “history” and “violence.”

Coward’s poor comparison is so much more bothersome because his letter got more attention than the striking workers did.

Days have passed since the strike. Among the feeds on Facebook and the Twitter account for UC Berkeley, the needs and demands of AFSCME workers are absent. Yet Coward’s letter is trending. Instead of debate and discussion about a multicampus strike for workers across the UC system, there seems to be nothing but silence. It seems like last Wednesday’s strike never happened. It seems like few even care. In response to this silence, a service worker wrote to me:

“I’ve worked for three years at a dining hall alongside the workers who went on strike last week. When I went in to work Wednesday, I walked past these career staff picketing in the rain to work with strikebreakers. I do not know the specific details for the strike, but the coverage and response by the UC Berkeley community shows that no one else seems to either and is not interested in finding out or even attempting to inform us undergrads. The now famous email from a Math 1A Professor focuses on the complexity of politics and the world at large. . . . I understand that we are encouraged to think in big ideas, but in this situation it came at the expense of acknowledging the voices of those who fill unseen gaps in our college lives.”

Coward’s letter and his abstraction of the strike as a historical moment shine light on the why much of the Berkeley community has remained quiet since the strike. The silence doesn’t just stem from fear — it stems from apathy.

It infuriates me to see students, staff and alumni (and Redditors) — uninterested or uninformed about the strike — rally behind Coward’s mission to solve the world’s complex problems by teaching math. I agree with his right to do so. We as a community, however, should not ennoble his conviction while simultaneously ignore the needs and demands of our workers.

By not listening to workers, we don’t solve the world’s problems. We add to them. We turn them into second-class citizens, slotted to a life of voiceless servitude.

At UC Berkeley, we claim to care about equal rights and economic justice. But our response to the strike tells a different story. It says, “Really, we just want workers and graduate students to shut up, and do as they’re told.”

This isn’t really a University of California. This is a university of cool exploitation, a campus of cosmopolitan apathy.

Josh Escobar writes the Monday column on the intersection of student and urban life. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @urbananimale.

NOVEMBER 25, 2013