Earning a community

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December 7, 2006

11:28 PM

I want to contribute a few points to the dialogue that Sam Sadler urged in Residence Life’s decision to not implement a six-day work week for housekeepers. As reported in Morgan Figa’s article in this issue, Sadler claims that he “want[s] to explore as a community” the questions that the proposed schedule change has raised. Now, “community” is a powerful word, and the right to use it must be earned. There are two unacknowledged obstacles in doing so at the College.

p. First, the administration sets the terms of the dialogue it wants to have. In a meeting with some RAs, Residence Life administrators complained that the proposed schedule change had not been expressed through the “proper channels” (according to an anonymous RA). Presumably, the “proper” channels run through Residence Life Director Deb Boykin’s office. When Ms. Boykin talks in the article about revising the “methodology” of the six-day plan to better determine how residents feel, she sets herself up as the sole arbiter of competing needs and values — accountable only to her superiors in the administration. It is, of course, a mark of progress that she wants to gauge student opinion by a measure more accurate than some multiple-choice survey. But, no matter how the investigation is conducted, at the end of the day she is still the one who chooses the questions and interprets the answers. A dialogue so constrained is no dialogue at all — it is a facilitated monologue. That’s why housekeepers and students needed a rally to express our opposition. We needed a forum of our own.

p. Secondly, the people who would be most affected by the proposal in question — the low-wage workers — are held on the margins of our so-called community. Their membership is judged by a double standard. On the one hand, they are expected to maintain that warm and special “community” atmosphere of the College. They are to be affable and outgoing. After all, at the meeting where they learned the six-day week would no longer be implemented in January, housekeepers were scolded for not talking enough to students (according to an anonymous housekeeper). They are to take pride in the work they do and the contribution they make to the campus. According to the June 9 issue of W&M News, the College has a ceremonial picnic to congratulate workers for their “character and commitment” every June. On the other hand, they are denied a voice in the community. Let’s not forget that Residence Life’s initial response when housekeepers expressed dissatisfaction with the plan: “If you don’t like it, you can find another job.” I have heard many times — in dorms, dining halls and around campus — the complaint of the housekeeper in today’s article: workers are afraid to speak out when their job is on the line. If they do have a problem, they are to voice it in their boss’s office, and on their knees. The notion that a dialogue can be held from such a position is ludicrous.

p. There’s a name for the College community’s double standard: paternalism. I can’t put it better than one housekeeper I talked to about this month’s events did: “They treat us like children. But we are not children.” In a region where paternalistic impulses once served to legitimize the most grinding human oppression, this should give us pause.

p. Now, Sadler doesn’t tell us what his community dialogue ought to look like, but I have some suggestions. First, it needs to be inclusive. Workers at the College do contribute something very special, much more than clean floors and hot meals. They should be allowed to contribute one more thing: their voices. Secondly, it cannot be conducted across a power differential, on administrators’ turf and administrators’ terms. The housekeepers have a union recognized by the College. The administration can and should be proactively engaging them in discussions over wages, benefits, scheduling and day-to-day treatment. When you’re stuck at the bottom of the totem pole, collective organization is the only way to get a voice of your own.

p. After a month fighting a decision that never should have been made, the Tidewater Labor Support Committee is going one step further than suggesting that the administration make good on its promise of dialogue. We’re demanding it. On Nov. 9, we proposed to President Nichol a College policy that would require good-faith engagement with the campus employees’ union and remove the present institutional obstacles to getting a voice on the job. (To see the policy, visit http://tlabor.people.wm.edu/rto.htm.) Some 500 students have already signed a petition urging the policy’s adoption. Until the policy is put in place, we will not consider the fight for workers’ weekends won — because the causes of the Residence Life debacle remain unaddressed.

p. I hope Sam Sadler and his colleague Vice President for Administration Anna Martin (the vice president actually responsible for most staff policies) will reflect on the obstacles to genuine dialogue at the College and take prompt action to eliminate them. If they do not, we can only conclude that the administration’s rhetoric of community is disingenuous — a cheap trick to preserve the status quo. If they do, then we can begin to build a community that truly merits the name.

p. __Andrew Shoffner, a member of the Tidewater Labor Support Committee, is a senior at the College. His views do not necessarily represent those of The Flat Hat.__

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