Last month, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro released a statement outlining the university’s plans to deal with the financial consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. He acknowledged the challenge of declining revenue for the university and the hit taken by the endowment, and he expressed pride in steps the university had already taken. Northwestern promised to refund students’ room and board, establish an emergency assistance fund and pay food service workers through Spring Quarter.
Yet not all of those action items were fulfilled. The promise to compensate food service workers, in partnership with Compass Group, the company that oversees Northwestern dining, never came to fruition. Back in early March, Students Organizing for Labor Rights (SOLR), a student activist group at Northwestern, began to voice concerns about Compass Group refusing to provide their employees with paid sick leave.
SOLR’s activism pushed Compass to expand paid sick leave by seven days. SOLR then started an emergency fund for donations to food service workers in early March, connecting with employees through the UNITE HERE Local 1 union, which represents Chicago’s hospitality workers, including those subcontracted by Compass. After raising over $9,000 for affected workers, they also initiated a petition for the university to pay those workers through the end of the school year. The success of the fundraising drive and the petition was fueled by SOLR’s broad use of social media, listservs and existing contacts with professors and student groups they thought would be willing to help out.
SOLR’s petition, with over 1,200 signatures, motivated the administration’s promise in March to compensate workers, but almost two months out from the initial pronouncement, SOLR and the Chicago union claim workers still have not been paid. SOLR and the union started the #NUDoRight campaign to pay food service workers on campus.
Erykah Nava and Gabriella Johansson, members of SOLR, told NBN in a statement that they are “constantly hearing from workers that people have applied for unemployment and were denied, suspended from their benefits or haven't heard back.”
Another target of SOLR’s activism has been the perceived narrow scope of Northwestern’s response to their workers. President Schapiro’s April statement addressed full compensation for food service workers.
But Nava and Johansson had two problems with that: “First that they are straight up lying and second that Northwestern is excluding many other workers by just mentioning food service workers, which doesn’t even cover all workers contracted by Compass,” such as maintenance, housekeeping and security guards.
Last week, President Schapiro released another statement updating students on the university’s financial situation. The statement included the announcement that 250 staff members would be furloughed in an effort to cut spending while dealing with a projected $90 million financial shortfall in the 2020 fiscal year.
The university promised to “prioritize furloughed employees for temporary placement whenever possible,” to continue furloughed workers’ benefits and professional development opportunities and to “increase to 100% of our coverage of health care insurance premiums and basic life insurance premiums continuation.”
These efforts have not satisfied SOLR and labor activists on campus, who see the university’s large endowment and the president’s high salary as incongruous with putting vulnerable workers out of jobs.
“We believe that the administration had other options that don't hurt staff such as dipping more into the endowment or spreading furlough days more across all staff,” Nava and Johansson wrote in their statement to NBN about how SOLR reacted to the furloughing.
SOLR publicly responded to President Schapiro’s announcement last week with a sarcastic tweet highlighting the president’s annual salary, which he agreed to reduce to $1.8 million.
SOLR is also using this moment of heightened anger and activism to form a coalition. The organization’s Twitter account retweeted a Fossil Free Northwestern petition calling on President Schapiro, who sits on the Board of Directors of a firm brokering insurance for a major coal mine project, to use his position to cease the firm’s involvement in the project altogether. The alliance is partly practical.
“Some of our members are also in Fossil Free [Northwestern],” wrote Nava and Johansson in their statement. Overlapping ideals, they say, also prime the two organizations for coalescing their work. “Shared values of anti-capitalism and valuing life over profits make coalition building meaningful and helpful for both groups.”
To date, SOLR has raised over $25,000 for its emergency fund. Still, even SOLR recognizes this is not enough to support food service workers’ livelihoods while they sit in limbo. And after the furloughs, there will be 250 more workers with acute financial needs. The university is drawing more money from the endowment and cutting top administrators’ pay. However, their inability thus far to pay food service workers, even while they rejected $8.5 million in federal aid, has fueled activists and organizers in their outcries.
SOLR responded to the furloughing of workers by distributing an online form to gauge what workers need, and on Wednesday, they called on Northwestern alumni to direct donations to SOLR instead of to the university itself.
Communication and organizing will be paramount in SOLR’s efforts, both of which they have modified in a world limited to phone calls and Zoom meetings. As stay-at-home orders remain and the administration rolls out more efforts to dampen COVID-19’s effects, SOLR will have to continue to adapt. The problem they are trying to solve, though, is clear to all members of SOLR.
As Nava and Johansson put it, “Northwestern is turning its back on the people who keep the university running.”