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Students recognize labor rights

Kaitlynn Riely | Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The scene at Fieldhouse Mall Tuesday afternoon felt alternately like the city of London’s Speaker’s Corner and a church revival. Students, professors, campus employees and area residents gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to criticize the status of workers’ rights at Notre Dame and in South Bend and the nation at large.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. The professors who spoke called the audience’s attention specifically to the declaration’s Article 23, which stipulates that “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection of work.” The document also enumerates “equal pay for equal work,” “just and favorable remuneration” that provides an “existence worthy of human dignity,” and advocates the “right to form and to join trade unions.”

“The idea for this event … is to create an awareness of labor issues and put them in the context of the situation on campus,” said senior Nick Krafft, one of the organizers of the event.

The point, he said, is not to make demands of the University, but to explain the work situation on campus and the ideals put forth by the “Human Rights” declaration.

“Hopefully this will create conditions for actual change on this campus,” he said.

Krafft is a member of the Campus Labor Action Project (CLAP), but was not at the event in that capacity.

Professors from Notre Dame and Indiana University South Bend, a labor group representative and Notre Dame workers spoke about the meaning of the document’s 60th anniversary and the work conditions at Notre Dame. Ellen Gunn, a member of the custodial staff in Siegfried Hall, ended the event by leading the crowd of approximately 100 people in song.

Prudence Dorsey, who works for building services in the Hesburgh Center and in the Early Childhood Development Center, told the crowd she works 10-12 hours a day and took a loan from Notre Dame but is still one payment away from facing foreclosure on her house.

Dorsey admitted it was generous of Notre Dame to provide her with a loan so she could make her house payments but said she would not have needed the loan in the first place if she received a living wage.

“They talk about family, but they need to stop using that word,” she said. “Because it’s become nothing but a corporation.”

Coleen Hoover, an administrative assistant for the University’s Creative Writing Program, called for a worker’s right to self-determination.

“We should be able to represent ourselves,” she said.

At Notre Dame, Krafft said, “it’s unclear how much of a voice workers really have.” Krafft and senior Michael Angulo, a member of the Progressive Student Alliance, organized the event, which Angulo said was to be a “celebration of labor rights.”

“Doing things like this is very important,” he said.

Jackie Smith, a sociology professor and a faculty member for Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Social Movements and Social Change, said there are gaps between the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the realities on campus and across the United States.

“Rights are never granted by people in authority,” Smith said. “Workers never get their rights respected unless they organize, build alliances and demand their rights be respected.”

But workers may sometimes be afraid to protest their situation, for fear of being fired, said Paul Mishler, a history professor at Indiana University South Bend.

“What we are doing here to honor Labor Day, and to honor the rights of workers at Notre Dame and throughout the community, is to say that this document is universal,” he said.

The rights enumerated in the declaration, said Notre Dame Law School professor Barbara Fick, “form the basis for ensuring dignity in the workplace.”

Angulo said he thought the event went well.

“Anytime you can bring together Notre Dame and South Bend and talk about the issues of social justice, that is great,” he said.