GOLDBERG: Serving up respect

The dining hall worker I talked with says she has worked in Saybrook for two years.

She recognizes many of the students who pass through the dining hall: The girl who dyes her hair different colors every week, the freshman with the neon orange long-board, the boy who never takes a meal without a side dish of peanut butter. Most of the Saybrook students don’t know her name, she says — I certainly didn’t, until I asked to speak with her for this piece. Some students will smile or occasionally say thank you, but most make little effort to interact with her as she refills the servings of hot food. Some jostle their plates impatiently as she carries out fresh trays of barbeque chicken.

A growing number of students have called on our community to boycott Gourmet Heaven to resist the store’s unjust labor practices. Which is all well and good — we should certainly use our consumer power to demand that local businesses treat their employees with respect. But while we’re calling on outside businesses to prioritize just labor policies, we should also consider our own treatment of laborers here at Yale.

As students, we don’t have the authority to determine dining hall workers’ salaries, the benefits they receive or other aspects of their employment. We do have the ability to ease their work day-to-day, and simply to demonstrate a bit more respect.

We often rush out of the dining hall and leave behind messy tables, neglecting to put away cups, scraps of food and crumpled napkins. Yale students are busy, but if we have time to involve ourselves in service, social justice and boycotts against G-Heav, we certainly have time to clean up our dishes. Yet students seem not to care. One Saybrook dining hall worker pointed out that no matter how many times students are instructed to sort their dirty dishware into separate bins, we still pile everything together and leave dining staff to comb through the mess.

Easing the work left to dining hall staff is part of the equation. But if we truly want to commit ourselves to fair labor treatment, we have to do more than put away our coffee mugs after dinner.

Worker justice movements are rooted in the belief that our connection with the staff who serve us isn’t just a labor relationship — it’s a human relationship. That’s why beyond G-Heav’s legal violations, many Yale students were outraged to discover that the owner was treating employees there unkindly, forcing them to stand for long hours without rest and to work under constant surveillance. The labor injustices in the dining halls are much less extreme. But still, beyond cleaning tables we should extend to dining hall workers the courtesies we give our classmates and acquaintances. Dining hall workers, after all, know us perhaps better than some of our classmates do. They see us at our highs and lows: when we slink into breakfast rubbing sleep out of our eyes, when we dig into plates of comfort food before our major exams. They know us; we should extend the courtesy of trying to get to know them too.

It is critically important that we use our power as consumers to advocate for just labor practices throughout New Haven. But while we’re protesting outside G-Heav, we should also remember the smaller actions we can take to improve our community’s relationship with labor. Bringing up your plate after a meal may be less glamorous than launching a boycott, but it’s no less important.

Emma Goldberg is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at emma.goldberg@yale.edu.

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