In the months following an outcry of alleged abuse in university departments on the campus, students are looking to places as far away as the Dominican Republic for inspiration to change this behavior. Internationalizing the issue of workers’ rights is exactly what is needed now that capital crosses borders with a key stroke while workers have no mobility.
Nearly 50 students from UMD attended a forum last night held in the Nyumburu Cultural Center to hear employees from Alta Gracia speak about their experiences and struggles in unjust working conditions. Student activist groups hosted the session in hopes of sparking members of the university community to take action against reports of workplace abuse that first surfaced last semester and have since spurred an internal university investigation.
Two workers from Alta Gracia — a brand of apparel made in the Dominican Republic and sold in the University Book Center — spoke about experiences of abuse over the last decade. In 2007, the Alta Gracia factory was shut down by Russell Athletic, a sports equipment brand, and all its workers were fired, according to Alta Gracia organizer Rachel Taber.
Students and workers around the world from United Students Against Sweatshops worked to reopen the factory and blacklist Russell. After a decade of campaigning, the factory was reopened and the workers were given a living wage for the first time, Taber said.
Although workers’ complaints at this university largely surround reports of sexual harassment and discrimination, Alta Gracia employees’ struggles are similar to those staff members on this campus, said members of the Justice at Maryland: Fight UMD Worker Abuse coalition. The purpose of bringing the Alta Gracia workers to the university, group members said, was to show the positive outcomes that can result from fighting for the powerless.
“This is the first time a business has actually respected us,” Mariza Vargas, an Alta Gracia worker, said through Taber, who translated. “This is the dream of every worker in all parts of the world, and we are living it.”
The second Alta Gracia employee, Elbanurys Olivio de Castillo, said students are the most powerful force in changing workers’ lives.
“You, the students, have the power,” she said through Taber. “You have to demand it.”
Andrew Mulinge, moderator of the forum and social action chairman of the Black Student Union, said he is looking forward to getting more students involved in the ongoing fight for university employees’ rights.
This semester, students have already rallied at the Terrapins football team’s Sept. 5 game vs. Miami to garner attention to the cause and are planning to continue protests at future home games. Last semester, several on-campus forums were held for university employees to speak out about alleged abuse, and more are planned for this semester.
“At the last forum, I was listening to a woman speak in Spanish,” Mulinge said. “I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but just by looking at her and her emotion I could tell she was struggling. She was up there crying about her testimony, and it was at this point that I realized it was wrong not to take part in a solution, and right then I decided that something needs to be done.”
Craig Newman, spokesman for this university’s chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he has witnessed and heard about numerous accounts of assault and abuse and he will not be satisfied until remedies are implemented.
He and other university employees said they hope students will join them in standing for workers’ rights.
“I want to see what the university would say if brothers on the basketball team decided they weren’t going to play,” said Abe Goodwin, a university construction specialist and panelist at last night’s event. “You’re not going to get respect until you demand respect.”
http://www.diamondbackonline.com/news/leading-the-home-front-fight-1.2599441#.TnjDVjukHag, By Maria Romas, Staff writer, Published: Tuesday, September 20, 2011