They marched through White Plaza at exactly 7:30, clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Loud, angry, but optimistic. Sixty Stanford students rolling through White Plaza on a Wednesday night. They seemed focused and empowered.
"We're SLAC," one said. "We're fighting for the employees of Stan-ford." In his hands he held a small red sign: NICE FIRST STEP, STAN-FORD... KEEP ON MOVING.
Another marcher looked over at him. "This is great," she said. "I just wish we were chanting."
The Student Labor Action Coali-tion (SLAC) was formed in 1998 at a student labor conference organized by the Students for Environmental Action at Stanford (SEAS) and the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), two leftist student organizations on campus.
According to the SLAC Mission Statement, the group "recognizes the privilege and power [they] have as students and chooses to exercise that power in the form of petitioning, teach-ins, call-ins, rallies, civil disobedience and non-violent action for the purposes of social justice. "
These non-violent actions have included a confrontation at Stanford Hospital in the fall quarter of 2001 at which six SLAC members were arrested, and most notably, a week-long hunger strike by six students in the spring of 2003. The fast was designed to provoke a review of labor policies at Stanford, and resulted in the establishment of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Workplace Policies.
Last Wednesday night's public Town Hall meeting appeared to be intended as a coming-out party, a sort of confirmation of all of SLAC's hard work that had culminated in the recommendations of the Advisory Committee. It was attended by about sixty members of SLAC, along with a handful of Stan-ford employees.
The Advisory Committee, headed by Executive Director of HR at Stanford, Diane Peck, and John Pencavel, Profes-sor of Economics, professed to being very pleased with the overall outcome of their report, although Professor Pencavel noted that "support was not unanimous for all recommendations."
The Advisory Committee began by summarizing the major points of the report, noting that the concept of economic parity – "equal pay for equal work" – may not have been applied to all temporary and casual employees. However Prof. Pencavel also com-mented that survey results revealed a "remarkably satisfied workforce" at Stanford.
The Committee recommended the institution of a worker advocate and worker involvement committees, which would provide a concrete platform to address worker grievances.
Their report also expressed concerns that records of subcontracted employ-ees were extremely lacking, and recommended that this situation be remedied. However the Committee also noted that the process of collecting information from subcontracted employees was "a two-way street," and that many employees had not been forthcoming with basic census data when requested.
One of the most contentious issues in the audience and among members of the Committee was that of extending the policy of "living wages," the imposition of a wage floor above normal minimum wage, to temporary workers. Although certain members of the Committee clearly supported the plan, others expressed reservations that the costs to the university would be "very large." And in some cases, the Committee found, "a ‘living wage' policy does not help low-wage workers but hurts them" by leading to lay-offs and shifts in preferences for labor. Ultimately the Committee decided not to recommend a living wage policy at this time.
The Committee also recognized workers' fundamental right to organized protest, as long as they are carried out under "the intent of the law" and in an "unintimidated [sic] and civil environment."
Co-Chair Peck concluded by remarking that she was "sincerely hopeful that President Hennessy will adopt the recommendations" in order to confirm Stanford as "an exemplar employer among universities."
It was as the floor was opened for input and questions that the atmosphere of the meeting turned uncom-fortably antagonistic. In a bizarre choreographed verbal assault on the Committee members and in particular Prof. Pencavel, SLAC began by reading a prepared statement and then questioned the Committee repeatedly as to why President Hennessy was not in attendance, one member claiming that the group had "ended the hunger strike in good faith" with the expecta-tion that President Hennessy would be involved in the labor reform process. Prof. Pencavel"s continual appeals that he could not speak for the President were met with general derision from the audience.
When Prof. Pencavel took issue with a section of SLAC"s prepared statement, citing a specific "misrepresentation of the phrasing of the document," SLAC accused him of "not wanting to listen" to the concerns of the public.
Several successive SLAC members complained about the structure of the town hall meeting, the time of the meeting, the whereabouts of President Hennessy, the lack of a Spanish translator, and various other concerns with the Committee"s recommendations.
Finally, SLAC member Molly Goldberg, a senior, demanded that the Committee call President Hennessy immediately to force him "to give up his evening" just as they and Stanford employees in attendance had for the cause: "I know you guys have his num-ber," the frustrated SLAC member charged.
Shortly thereafter, discouraged with the progress of the meeting and the Committee"s unsatisfactory response to Hennessy"s absence, Goldberg rose again and announced that the group was leaving the meeting to march on President Hennessy"s house.
This is not the first time that SLAC has provoked controversy with their confrontational brand of activism. SLAC is supported by ASSU funds and on Tuesday, the ASSU Senate voted on a bill to award funding to SLAC for picket signs in labor protests. Senator Chris Nguyen raised concerns that the Senate"s support of such a bill could be interpreted as partisan.
In February 2002, SLAC was forced to apologize to the ASSU Senate after they clashed with President Hennessy at an ASSU-sponsored question-and-answer session. There was concern that the ASSU Senate would be associ-ated with SLAC"s actions because they endorsed the coalition"s campaign.
At last Wednesday"s meeting, it was in the midst of the audience that a cry was started and gradually echoed until it had increased in force and anger. "Where is Hennessy? Where is Hennessy?" In some manner of self-fulfilling prophecy, SLAC was chanting, all right.
As the crowd cleared and the Tressider West meeting room emptied, the Committee began packing up their bags to leave, somewhat disheartened with the SLAC tactics.
"I honestly believe the President"s very sincere," Co-Chair Peck commented.
Although she stopped short of con-demning SLAC"s conduct at the meet-ing, saying that "I think they do what they think is the right thing to do," Peck did mention that she wished they acted more "civil and polite."
Prof. Pencavel remarked that "the questions and statements… were sweeping and did not recognize the complexity of the issues."
Looking back at the fast that precipitated the Committee's formation, Pencavel bemoaned that "it's always disappointing when people feel they have to harm themselves." Peck stated simply: "there's another way."
Outside, the SLAC mob made its way loudly towards President Hennessy"s house. The group marched on in full force, leaving behind several of the ‘NICE FIRST STEP STANFORD… KEEP ON MOVING" signs in the confusion.