A report from University of Washington students Gaby Guillén and Morgan Currier who allied MEChA and USAS on their campus through the Kick Out Sodexo Campaign.
My name is Gabriela Guillén and I am a member of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán (MEChA) at the University of Washington. MEChA was founded on the principles of self-determination for the liberation of our people. Our group believes that political involvement and education is the avenue for change in our society and that’s why we joined the Kick Out Sodexo Coalition on the University of Washington campus. MEChA has been a strong ally of United Students Against Sweatshops as we recognize that everyone involved in this campaign is part of a much larger movement of people who are fighting for equality and justice just as we are. After spending time working with USAS organizers like Morgan Currier, we realized just how similar our organizational values were. This is our story.
The school year was coming to an end and our patience was running low for the University of Washington administration to respond to our demands to terminate our school’s contract with Sodexo. As members of USAS and MEChA were meeting up for our third occupation of the month, our plans were shaken when we found the police were already waiting for us at our secret meeting location. Despite this, we were determined to continue with our action and had to think on feet to come up with a new strategy to get twenty-five students to the Office of Admissions before the police did. So, with the police on our tail, our group ran through alleys and took any possible route to get to the office for our sit-in. When we finally made it into the building and up three flights of stairs, we began our most exciting occupation yet. Members of MEChA and USAS spent the next three hours together negotiating, chanting, and singing until fifteen students were arrested by the administration. This level of student solidarity didn’t develop over night, and in fact, it took nine months of struggle to get to this point.
Since 1997 university students as part of USAS, along with allied campus groups, have been holding companies accountable for their human rights and labor violations. Using a combination of student power and multi-million dollar contracts with our schools, students have been able to improve the way companies like Russell and Nike do business. This past year, USAS at the University of Washington, in solidarity with universities across the nation, ran a campaign to end our school’s contract with the food service giant, Sodexo. This global employer has been cited for union busting, discriminating based on race and gender, and paying workers sub-poverty wages. If our university truly cared about human rights, they could no longer do business with companies like Sodexo who blatantly violate the rights of their workers in five different countries.
Terminating Sodexo’s $3.4 million contract with the UW was not going to be an easy feat but with a small group of determined students, we began our struggle. We started delivering letters to our university president, Phyllis Wise, informing her about the injustices being carried out by Sodexo. But even after we voiced serious concerns and presented the evidence of Human Rights Watch and TransAfrica Forum, President Wise refused to take any meaningful action.
As the administrators dragged their feet, throwing a variety of meaningless excuses our way for why they couldn’t cut Sodexo’s contract, we began to spread word of our campaign like wildfire across the campus community. When students found out about Sodexo’s human rights violations and the administration’s lack of concern, many were eager to get involved. It was then that we formed the UW Kick Out Sodexo Coalition, a group of twenty student groups united in the fight to kick Sodexo off our campus. These groups included MEChA, UW Amnesty International, UW Hillel, and the UW Food Co-op; campus groups who haven’t been united in years.
Although the UW Kick Out Sodexo Coalition applied more pressure through rallies and gaining community support, by April the administration continued to assure us that “there was no basis for termination”. Translation: we don’t care about your concerns. We were becoming increasingly frustrated with their excuses and running out of patience for them to act on the demands of the campus community. After holding numerous rallies, providing faculty letters, passing an ASUW resolution, and earning the support of the campus community, it was obvious that we shouldn’t be doing business with this toxic company. We gave the administration plenty of evidence and even satisfied their demand to hear from Sodexo representatives who flew in from Washington, D.C. We decided we needed to use direct action to get the administration’s attention so that the voices of students and community were heard once and for all.
On the morning of May 10, sixty students marched into President Wise’s office and refused to leave until the contract with Sodexo was cut. Instead of hearing what the students had to say, President Wise was escorted out by police, leaving her students to wait. She never returned to her office to talk to us. Seven hours and twenty-seven student arrests later, every student, faculty member, community leader, Seattle newspaper, and local news station knew just how serious this struggle had become and was looking to the UW administration to take action.
The next couple days consisted of holding rallies, crashing the board of reagents meeting with news cameras, and continuing to spread awareness. The campus community needed to know that our administration would rather arrest twenty-seven students than cancel their contract with a global human rights violator. The weeks seemed to come and go but our voices continued to be shunned. The administration left us no choice but to stage a second occupation, this time targeting the athletics department where Sodexo’s contract was housed. A number of students marched into the office of the Director of Athletics with a rally of one hundred students following in their footsteps. But again, after three hours, the administration chose to arrest students rather than seriously discuss their concerns.
The last time the University of Washington had three consecutive sit-ins was in 1980 over student concerns with minority rights on campus. And now, twenty one years later, students had to once again unite in direct action to demand that students voices be heard. This time, UW USAS and MEChA de UW worked closely to organize a third occupation of the Office of Admissions. After two hours, eighteen more students were arrested. If you haven’t been keeping track, that’s fifty-five total student arrests that the administration issued rather than cutting Sodexo’s contract.
As we sat with our arms linked in the final moments of the third occupation, we were in total disbelief of the administration’s actions, not just on that day, but throughout the year. “When I applied to this university, I applied to the University of Washington — not the Washington Business Bureau” yelled Roxana Garcia, a co-chair of MEChA de UW. Especially in light of extreme budget cuts and the university gaining complete tuition-setting power, the administration’s reaction to student concerns was frightening. How can we ever combat major tuition increases if the university won’t even work with us to make our school a more ethical institution?
It’s summer now and we’re getting closer to Sodexo being removed from our campus. But as we reflect on our year of campaigning, we’ve learned and accomplished so much! Who knew two girls under 5’2” could unite two groups of students to put the scare into the 21st largest employer in the world? Now we know where students’ decision-making power truly lies within our university, and although we are deeply concerned about our power-tripping administration, we’ve had a huge victory for student voices on campus. As we chanted throughout the year “The students united will never be divided,” it’s clear that now, more than ever, unity is the most instrumental tactic in tackling campus issues. Student groups like MEChA, Students Organizing for LGBTQ Equality (SOLE), Black Student Union, and USAS, who are struggling for justice, need to stand together to fight for what’s right on our campuses. The time is now to take back our universities!