Confronting Labor On Campus and Beyond

Labor isn’t pretty. Amherst College is pretty — especially as it prepares to host the families of its graduating seniors, who will undoubtedly remember the beauty of the commencement ceremony, the speeches and campus aesthetics for a long time.

But what makes this campus pretty and functional as an institution that feeds, houses, entertains, pampers and also educates, 1800 students is the labor of a small army of Val workers, landscapers, secretaries, custodians and student employees. Except at a few unavoidable points, like the entryway to Val, students — and most definitely parents and alumni — are kept separate from college employees by scheduling and infrastructure. Instead of handing our dishes to Val employees, we put them on a conveyor belt that whisks them into some Neverland in which they somehow get cleaned. Our custodians clean our dorms when most of us are in class or still sleeping. The campus grounds crew works in a way that avoids students who might be enjoying our campus’s outdoor workspaces.

Much of this is just common courtesy. Custodians wait until the end of their shift to vacuum, because vacuuming at 7:30 a.m. would be inconsiderate. Similarly, leaf-blowing isn’t so urgent that one needs to get the spot right next to where a student might be sitting and reading. But this courtesy is still predicated on the fact that labor is ugly, and if we can avoid thinking about it, most of us would seize the opportunity. Early morning vacuuming might cause some unnecessary tensions between a custodian and the residents of their dorm, but it also transgresses certain norms of keeping the labor that keeps this institution running hidden.

Similarly, you may not know that International Workers’ Day is just around the corner. You may not know that there has been a concerted effort to make sure you don’t know this. International Workers’ Day, more commonly known in the U.S. as May Day, marks a radical history of workers demanding the eight-hour workday, the weekend in its current form, and peace. It did not take long, however, for this holiday to be rebranded to be less threatening to early 20th century capitalists. Since 1921, May 1 in the U.S. has been renamed “Americanization Day,” “Loyalty Day” and “Law Day.” Even the name “May Day” serves to distance the date from its radical history of labor organizing and link it instead to an innocuous annual festival celebrating springtime across European cultures. Instead, what we recognize as “Labor Day” here in the States was dedicated by President Cleveland as a politically safer alternative to May 1.

Perhaps labor is not ugly (or at least, not only ugly), but scary. Scary because we know that all that is upholding the smooth functioning of Amherst College or global capitalism is that small army of people who decide to do their jobs everyday.

What would happen if they decided not to? Well, you might get a chance to find out this International Workers’ Day. On Monday, May 1, workers in general — and immigrant workers, specifically — will be striking around the country in what is being called “A Day Without Immigrants.” The day-long strike, which will be leading up to a week-long strike in the future, demands dignity, respect and permanent protection from deportation. You can be a part of this movement by attending actions taking place right here in the Pioneer Valley. At 1:30 p.m. there will be a march in Northampton from 20 Hampton Ave. At 5:30 p.m. in Springfield, there will be a march to the local ICE office and later to City Hall for a speakout at the City Council meeting. Back in Northampton, at 8 p.m., you can find a party at the Haymarket Cafe.

So, we Amherst students recognize and thank all the college employees who ensure that we are fed, housed and comfortable. We are also willing to give up some of those comforts so that you may exercise your rights to demand whatever you consider to be fair treatment as workers, should you choose to do so, and declare our support for striking workers across the country.

Aaron Cooper-Lob ’17
Nancy Nzeyimana Cyizere ’17
Rojas Oliva ’19
Cristina Rey ’19E
Siraj Ahmed Sindhu ’17
Brian Z. Zayatz ’18