Widgets Magazine


Fighting injustice at Stanford

At Stanford, we fight the good fight on so many fronts. Starry-eyed students champion a diversity of causes that range from AIDS to sustainability to educational inequity with efforts that target communities in Central Africa, rural Ecuador and urban America. It seems that only our soaring ambitions can match the audacity with which we combat such intractable issues. While this remarkable quality distinguishes us as the world’s future leaders, those same aspirations produce a shortcoming: a tendency to overlook injustices committed here on campus, which we perceive to be our slice of paradise. Our imbalanced approach to addressing the disparities that plague humanity leaves us uninformed about pressing matters in our immediate surroundings. In fairness, a triage system seems intuitively reasonable; considering the systemic problems that destabilize the developing world, why should we expend resources and divert time to address our local community’s problems?

To answer such a difficult question, we invoke Martin Luther King, who said, “An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.” Earlier this quarter, a large contingent of the Stanford population confronted an instance of local injustice. Two weeks ago, janitorial servicing company ABM – contracted by Stanford – fired employee Karina Reyes for using a Stanford computer to charge her phone. Recognizing the contractor’s decision as an egregious overreaction, Karina’s tutors from Habla La Noche – a program that teaches campus workers English – contacted the Stanford Labor Action Coalition to find some immediate recourse. As we investigated the situation, we soon realized that this was another classic case of worker abuse. For over two years, Karina had demonstrated a sterling ethic in her work and had received no complaints from her managers. Also, the person whose computer Karina had used specifically requested that she be reassigned to another part of campus and not be terminated. Since Karina regularly sends remittances to support her single mother, ailing brother and college-bound sister, we needed to act swiftly to remedy this clear injustice.

To mobilize most effectively, we created an online petition, which garnered an incredible amount of solidarity with over 1,600 signatures from various members of the Stanford community. Buoyed by the unanticipated level of support, Karina was ready to fight for reinstatement and back wages at the mediation on Feb. 10. With union members, the Stanford Asian American Activism Committee and the Stanford Labor Action Coalition ready to protest outside the ABM office, Karina struck a deal that secured her position with benefits and provided back pay for five of the nine days she missed.

As has been documented on several occasions, ABM capitalized on a trivial mistake in a blatant attempt to reduce costs through a vicious, two-part cycle: firing senior employees that have rightfully earned raises and replacing them with new labor at lower wages. At an institution like Stanford, students, faculty and other community members cannot and should not ignore the gross incompetence, naked injustice and chronic malpractice displayed by ABM. While we continue to demand that ABM follow Stanford’s living wage policy and code of conduct, we should also rethink our university’s system of subcontracting that promotes cutting costs on workers’ ends in order to increase profit for management. Under a system in which all Stanford workers were hired in-house, Stanford would be able to better monitor workers’ treatment. Also, cutting out the middleman would free funds to pay workers fairly.

Equipped with a world-class education and a reliable moral compass, Stanford activists, like alumni have demonstrated, may view the world as their oyster. One of us could become the Supreme Court justice that upholds a woman’s right to privacy. One of us could become the promising Newark mayor that revitalizes a dying city. One of us could become the advocate dedicated to the success of mentally and physically impaired athletes worldwide. But before we fulfill our lofty dreams, we have a responsibility as Stanford students, conscious of the constant tension between the powerful and the powerless, to rout the frequent labor abuses that persist as unwanted weeds on our beloved farm.

-Dagem Mammo ’10, Stanford Labor Action Coalition

  • Dan

    Reliable moral compass? Did I miss something in my Stanford education?

  • Dan

    more: Stanford sophomores feeling they know more than everyone else is how Obama got elected and how we got into this mess in the first place. The faculty that promote this “moral compass” nonsense are themselves guilting students into promoting their own programs which have nothing whatsoever to do with morality.

  • Patrick

    So young Stanford students who have, for the most part, been nurtured and coddled by their mostly utilitarian middle class environment since childhood; who have not yet experienced, or will not ever in some (not all) cases, the world in its harsh and brutal nature, have a reliable moral compass? Get real. These students are our future world leaders who only know on some abstract level the level of suffering that a large majority of humans in this world experience on a daily basis? Just because we go to a highly prestigious private academic institution does not make us special, nor does it prepare us for the challenges which we must confront. An addiction to idealistic optimism is not the panacea or elixir to the world’s illness, it is only an opiate blinding us to the status quo and ourselves. Real change is not found in studying, nor in creating a clever HUMBIO project, or organizing some student group for a “cause.” It is also not found in the corporate environment of a law firm, consulting agency, nor, sad to say, in the ability to organize a protest. The passion which informs social movements is found out there in the real world. There you will find hope amidst suffering and create for yourself a real moral compass, whatever that phrase means. Please, to those who read this article: Go out into the REAL world amongst your fellow humans, see and EXPERIENCE how real people are actually living. Find the compassionate connection with your fellow human. Be not afraid of solitude, for there you will find wisdom.