W.R.O.C. : A History and Analysis of Workers’ Rights Activism at Princeton

The Workers’ Rights Organizing Committee (WROC) came at the turn of the century, when Princeton’s campus was flooded with human rights concerns, including the anti-sweatshop movement and outrage against the University’s hiring of the infamous bioethicist Peter Singer. While it would be unreasonable to expect current students to be familiar with every activist movement of seventeen years ago, it is curious that workers’ rights organizing have since laid dormant, and hence been largely forgotten by our institutional memory. This past spring, however, the issue resurfaced when a group of roughly two hundred—undergraduates, graduate students, and campus dining service and facilities members—came together to march during Princeton Preview, which will be detailed later in this article. 

I say the wane and now resurgence of concern is curious because workers have never left this campus. They are always here when students are away on break, and even when students sleep. Why is student-organized advocacy only sporadic? Active from 2000 to 2003, WROC was the last to bring it to Princeton’s campus until new efforts this past spring. The group provoked discussion among students and faculty, while bringing the lowest-paid campus workers to the forefront, amplifying voices that had been previously unheard and ignored. 

The committee fizzled out with the graduating class of 2003. While there isn’t a universal reason for the evaporation of activist organizations, it is possible to gain insight into WROC’s through the eyes of its organizers. After conducting interviews, a clear picture came forward: that of an organization started by passionate yet young activists who didn’t know how to foresee its future, but who also simply did not have the time amid Princeton’s strenuous academics and the urgency of their organizing efforts.

WROC was founded officially by Nicholas Guyatt ‘03 Ph.D., Vincent Lloyd ‘03, Julia Salzman ‘02, and David Tannenbaum ‘01, although interviews made it clear that the project was Tannenbaum’s, inspired by his year off from Princeton spent working with the advocacy group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in Brooklyn. Returning to campus, he, along with the other organizers, used his newly acquired and invaluable skills to perform research into campus workers’ economic situation, meet with administration representatives and union members, and publish articles about their findings. Tannenbaum described the importance of applying “real world” organizing skills as taking a “sledgehammer to a nail,” pointing out that key players in policy and community decisions do not have to respond to demonstrations, protests, or other tactics, while Princeton’s administration must respond quickly to its students, even if not productively. 

WROC’s first demands were for a Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) for workers, to mitigate inflation and the ever-rising cost of living, and also for raising the minimum wage; the latter of which the University committed to granting. The committee also dedicated itself to eradicating the use of temporary workers. Hired to fill in for others on leave, or for “temporary projects,” their attractiveness is that without a union, they are ineligible for the same benefits as unionized workers, and are not guaranteed consistent work hours. It saved money and cut corners, but undermined the bargaining power of the union. Furthermore,  a 2002 ninety-two question survey of the lowest-paid revealed additional issues. The “pay for performance” program was brought to light as leaving nearly full discretion on raises to the whims of managers. Many reported not feeling that their work was rewarded, and also that they desired more diversity in their workplace. 

WROC asked students out on Prospect Avenue to wear stickers in support of campus workers; they marched from Firestone Plaza to Jadwin Hall, conducted surveys with workers, and met with administrators who were most involved with workers— as a side note, it is telling that in seeking meetings with administrators most involved with workers’ rights, students were mainly directed to the Vice President of Finance and Administration, (at the time, Richard Spies *72)—an indication that administration considered workers a financial burden before considering them humans. 

In hindsight, the founders expressed a desire to have cultivated leaders in the classes behind them and to have responded with additional issues once former Presidents Harold Shapiro and Shirley Tilghman met the demand for a higher minimum wage. But more significant than idle wishes, those criticisms represent the troubles that allowed WROC to end. Ultimately, the group found itself without much wind in its sails. Once the committee had exhausted all apparent channels for reaching its goals, administration was still able to stave off the further demands. The activists took all the steps they knew how to, and ultimately only negotiated one or two of the plethora of issues they could have addressed. When administration conceded to budge, the most minimal victories appeared huge, and the very fact of their success eclipsed all of remaining demands and platforms. 

The committee had also decided consciously to keep the fight isolated within the campus. Guyatt ‘03 Ph.D. illustrates: “Although there was a good deal of organizing going on back then at Yale and Harvard, among other places, we mostly ran WROC as an independent entity.” Although this decision was made in an effort to respect the SEIU Local 175—the union administering ultimate worker-university negotiations—it also isolated Princeton as a campus culture and worked against leftist organizing outside of this “Orange Bubble.” 

In light of these errors and obstacles, WROC ended up as a single-issue activist group, as opposed to a sustained structural organizing committee. It was run by an excellent founding cohort followed by less effective leadership afterwards and, in that, left any potential to connect with the greater labor movement in the United States untapped.  

Returning to the present, the Spring 2017 march, organized by the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) of Princeton, came after a pair of Northeastern snow storms during which workers were controversially asked to stay overnight on cots in the Frist basement multipurpose rooms with limited privacy so that students could wake to a functioning campus the next morning. 

While most would not argue that the overnight stay was necessary, those who marched with YDS believed that workers deserved more from their employer—better accommodations at the very least. In addition to this action, many students contributed to the USG (Undergraduate Student Government) project which sought to highlight how important workers are to the campus.  The administration was, however, quickly able to elicit warm feelings for labor workers from students in the aftermath. Through official statements and responses to the YDS action, it pushed an image of happy workers who love their jobs, and in turn deflected the call for better conditions. Even when that’s true, do workers enjoying their work preclude asking for better conditions? The question went largely unanswered and ignored. Administration controlled the public narrative surrounding workers, as it did in the time that WROC was active. 

The precarious nature of student-laborer relations complicate figuring out how to respond to the administration’s tactics. When a student organization at an elite university looks to connect with a union in solidarity with the workers that clean up for them on a day-to-day basis, how can they do so without calling that same hierarchy into effect? Dissenting public voices during WROC’s time highlight this apparent irony. Furthermore, at what point do students stop speaking and give room for the amplified voices of workers? Of course, a valid gut reaction is that students are never meant to speak for workers in the first place, but rather, to clear the way for worker concerns to be heard. But how do students make that space? I would argue that the space is made through student voices reaching administration in tandem with those of workers, informed through worker opinions and concerns. Yet other facets of identity complicate our reckoning further: Princeton students are prominently white, wealthy and have a generational expectation of educational opportunities; on the other side, Princeton’s campus workers include immigrants, people of color, and non-native English speakers. Dr. Nick Guyatt *03 expressed the difficulty of facing these questions, saying: “We made our demands, got some of them accepted, and then we moved on. We didn’t create durable structures for, say, a standing committee bringing students and workers together around ongoing worker issues. There was a very mild politics to that, in terms of the unions: SEIU and AFSCME were the proper venues for [strategizing] about worker remuneration and conditions, and one challenge for students is to find a way to be helpful without actually stepping on the toes of the labour unions—i.e., the bodies constituted to represent ordinary workers.”

Despite these shortcomings, self-criticisms, and ethical questions, WROC also was able to inspire momentous change and profound discussion surrounding the labor situation on Princeton’s campus. Not only did the University commit to re-examining its policy on temporary workers, but it also committed to raising wages ahead of the projected schedule, President Shirley Tilghman, his successor, also supported raising the minimum wage for campus workers. Now, the SEIU Local #175 contract with the University sets the lowest wage for workers at around $14.75 per hour, far above that of most of the country. 

And as expressed through opinion pieces of the era published in the Daily Princetonian, WROC forced students to think about the privilege that they held over workers, ultimately prompting appreciation for those who made their comfort at Princeton possible. Although such relationships remain fraught, students are beginning again to take steps in worker advocacy. Around the spring 2017 action, YDS asked students to consider how they viewed campus workers. This left  a lasting impression on many students, especially as Princeton’s campus community becomes increasingly diverse in terms of class and race. Twenty-one percent  of Princeton’s incoming class is eligible for Pell Grants, (government subsidies for higher education) and 53.4% identified as “ethnic minorities.” The implication of these developments is more students with family members who work low-income jobs much like the workers on their campus. Equally important, YDS’ interviews with workers involved in the labor union illuminate a resounding appreciation for students’ concern for their fair treatment. They have been left with the lasting impression that students do care about them, and will demand respect from the University alongside them. And this coalition building is the essence of community organizing. 

 Yet my final concerns are about how WROC’s 2000 to 2003 work, and now the renewed interest in labor relations here at Princeton, fit within a general left movement. The research I have done, even including some of the interviews, reveal an alarming trend one of exceptionalism. The idea is that Princeton is “morally responsible” to pay workers better than the national average, due to the incredibly large endowment that Princeton enjoys—now considerably higher than it was between 2000 and 2003. But this isolates Princeton from the general background in the United States of labor relations; it tells us that the university should only have to consider treating workers fairly because of its endowment and exceptional fairy tale community created within the Orange Bubble. Campus leftists should reject this idea if they hope to connect to the larger purpose of left activism. Princeton is not the exception; it should be the example for relations between other service workers’ unions and corporations and universities. Frankly, a living wage and dignity for workers, along with a functional  relationship between unions and the businesses and organizations that depend upon them for profit is not something that should only exist in the magical fairy tale world that Princeton sells. It should be non-negotiable that if we fight for one, we fight for all.

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