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An unhappy day for labor

Kamaria Porter | Tuesday, September 2, 2003

In light of yesterday’s observance, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce a vital part of our Notre Dame community that is not highlighted in Frosh O or any other University-sponsored event.

They are the people who make those 5 a.m. pizzas to fuel your all-nighter at Reckers.

They wash the dishware on the other side of the dining hall.

They clean our dorm rooms while we relax during semester breaks and holidays.

They are Notre Dame’s campus workers. Without these women and men, we would actually have to put forth effort toward our own survival. Besides scholarly pursuits and, for some, campus jobs, students here live a glamorous life.

You would think students would be extremely grateful to the campus workers who free our time for intense study or leisure. For me, this is the first time since early childhood that I have ever had someone else to wash my dishes and pick up after me.

But appreciating and upholding labor is no longer a value central to mainstream American thought. Consumers today think that as long as we get what we want, the conditions under which the producers and providers of our goods and services work do not matter.

This indifference has permeated our culture. Labor Day, a holiday intended to commemorate collective worker agitation and champion the everyday people who continue to build this country, has turned into a reason to vacation or shop at weekend sales.

The United States does not acknowledge May Day, the international worker celebration day, even though it has American historical roots.

Citizens are more interested in pop culture exploits than whether the people who keep our nation afloat produce under safe working conditions or receive a living wage. With an unemployment rate near 6.2 percent, it is difficult for many to even find work.

Those employed may not fare any better. Last September, workers at Azteca Foods factory in Chicago went on strike for about nine months to demand a safer working environment, the acknowledgement of their chosen union, and improved benefits. Farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., whose toil supplies Taco Bell’s tomatoes, make a median personal income of $7,500 or less because their unit wage rate remains the same as it was in the 1970s.

Workers in this country deserve a better break. Management personnel receive enormous amounts of income in salary and financial capital while employees are struggling. Some people hold down multiple jobs and still fail to make ends meet. Our government grants financial benefits to the rich, expecting the dollars to trickle down, while more people plummet below the poverty line.

Why have we let this happen? Why, at Notre Dame, a Catholic school, has this issue not been uplifted and discussed?

Our religious ancestors made up the bulk of the working class during the early 20th century. As poor immigrants and marginalized peoples, Catholics and other workers had to fight for basic human rights while on the job. Their efforts paid off, judging from our student body, yet people today are unwilling to give others a leg up. The ideas of rugged individualism and the self-made American have forged an expansive chasm between the privileged and the poor.

How can we be united when, on so many levels, people in this country differ?

Americans will gladly celebrate abstractions and ideals yet turn away from the real people without the freedom of life, liberty and contentment in their workplaces.

To turn this tide of selfish ideology, we all can perform a number of actions.

Research the products you consume regularly and participate in boycotts of goods and services whose workers are struggling for better treatment. Ask for fair trade coffee whenever you can and demand its availability in every vendor on this campus.

If you really want to affect change, get involved with campus organizations, such as the Progressive Student Alliance, who dedicate themselves to labor and social justice issues.

Or you could do something as simple as strike up a conversation with your section housekeeper or a food service worker. You’ll meet new people and gain insight on the long hours they work, how infrequently some see their children, or what their job responsibilities include. If human contact is not your style, only take what you can eat in the dining hall and refrain from trashing your dorm.

Any of these actions can move us into a better position of labor appreciation and overall justice for every American.

Kamaria Porter is a sophomore history major. Her column appears every other Tuesday. Contact her at kporter@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.