SEATTLE, WA - Protests against the notorious union-busting company, Sodexo, are gathering momentum at the University of Washington in Seattle. Another thirteen students at UW were arrested on Thursday, May 19 for staging a peaceful sit-in against the school's $3.4 million contract with the company. This follows the arrest of 27 students on May 11 at a sit-in of 60 people.
UW student activists, lead by United Student Against Sweatshops, have been campaigning for seven months along with 16 other organizations in the UW Kick Out Sodexo Coalition. For most of this time, student activists have tried to patiently work with the administrators, attempting to persuade them to cut the contract with the global food services corporation, Sodexo, because of the company's record on workers' rights internationally, their use of genetically modified foods, and their abuse of UW workers.
After being stonewalled by the administration for months, the campaign has taken a turn toward direct action, employing peaceful sit-ins and boldly risking arrest. The latest protest shows that, following the first sit-in and the arrest of 27 students the week before, support for the campaign has grown. The mid-afternoon protest on May 19 was twice as large as the previous rally, with more than 120 students, union activists and community supporters at its peak.
Protesters began gathering at 3:30 pm for a rally in support of the 27 students arrested the week before. It was not advertised that a new sit-in would take place. After rallying support on the main plaza at UW, the spirited protest then began marching around campus. Shortly after, organizers announced that more than 20 students were already occupying the office of the UW Director of Athletics Scott Woodward.
The protesters marched down to the Athletics Department offices in the shadow of Husky Stadium, where the school's prestigious football team plays, and where Sodexo rakes in millions in concession sales. Banners were hung off a foot bridge over Montlake Blvd in the middle of rush hour traffic. Protesters lined the street and chanted for hours. “What do we want? Cut the contract! When do we want it? Now!”
While numbers eventually dwindled, more than 50 students and community supporters rallied for more than three hours until the students sitting-in were arrested shortly after 6:00 pm. At one point, protesters marched around the Athletics Department office building chanting, “Sit-in! Round two! We won't stop till the contract's through!”
At 5:00 pm, three of the main news agencies in western Washington went live with reports and footage from the protests. Then, shortly before 6:00 pm, organizers got word that students had gotten their “final warning” from police. Supporters then rallied outside the window of the office occupied by students, where those sitting in were able to address the crowd. After several spirited chants and a chorus of the labor song, “Solidarity Forever,” students inside prepared for arrest.
When the police finally came, the first thing they did was close the windows and shut the blinds so they could not be filmed taking students away. Clearly, the university is worried about a potential scandal blowing up in their face, possibly on YouTube or Facebook. The students were booked inside the athletics building, instead of being taken off site for booking where they could be filmed in custody, and let go one at a time. They have been charged with first degree trespassing, and it's unclear what will happen next.
Thursday's protest has given a big boost to the fighting spirit and confidence of the activists. After seven months of hard work, this campaign now has a new wind in its sails. Most of the students I talked to had only been involved for a couple weeks. For many, this was their first action on the issue. As I was leaving the protest I asked one of the student activists what might happen next. She enthusiastically replied, “Sit-in number three!”
It's very possible that, accompanied with growing protests and escalating pressure from students, workers, and supporters in the community, the sit-ins could force the administration to make a monumental concession on the Sodexo contract. Just last week, students at Western Washington University in Bellingham forced the administration there to sever its contract with Sodexo.
But there are no guarantees! Winning more support for the campaign is a vital task. This is primarily a political task of explaining to and convincing wider and wider numbers of students and workers why they have a stake in this struggle. Sodexo's record of human rights abuses is part of a broader agenda of big-business attacks against workers, the middle class and the poor. It's directly linked to the abusive big-business policies of starving our schools of funding, privatizing public services, and worsening working conditions for workers everywhere in pursuit of tax breaks and record profits.
In this context, the demand for cutting the contract with Sodexo could be linked to demands for more living wage jobs with decent benefits at UW – one of the largest employers in Seattle – and for an end to budget cuts that are wrecking services for thousands of students, working-class families, women, and people of color. The struggle to cut the contract with Sodexo is a struggle to beat back the rapacious policies of big business in the interests of workers, youth, and oppressed groups everywhere. Please take action now to support this campaign!
Call UW Interim President Phyllis Wise at 206-543-5010 and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell her to kick out Sodexo and drop all charges against arrested students! You can email a simple form letter to UW President Wise at http://kickoutsodexo.usas.org/