Not Safe For Work?: Student employees struggle with exposure to potential Spencer event
If all had gone to plan on Thursday morning, student employees of the University Unions would be sitting in the Board of Regents meeting room in protest of white nationalist Richard Spencer’s potentially speaking on campus. After a meeting with Unions administrators earlier this week, the employees shifted their efforts to public spaces to avoid risk of termination.
As the board convenes two weeks after the University agreed to negotiate Spencer’s presence, and as students across campus continue to protest threats to their safety, questions still swirl around the roles of — and accommodations for — student workers who might be asked to facilitate his appearance.
LSA senior Zoe Proegler, Michigan League building manager, was central to the planning of the original nightlong sit-in. She believes any event featuring Spencer and his racist, often violent rhetoric cannot be held safely on campus. Protesters goaded by Spencer at rallies this year have left injuries and, in Charlottesville, Va., death, in their wake.
Proegler said student workers setting up and managing the event would be uniquely vulnerable. One of her supervisors, she said, alerted her that Spencer’s requests specified the Unions, some of the few buildings on campus available for public rent.
“Students are central to any event held in University Unions,” Proegler said. “We’re responsible for A/V — including the microphone he might speak in — tables and chairs, troubleshooting … student workers cannot be removed from the equation.”
Multiple employees said building directors did not broach workers’ concerns until talk of protest reached administrators this week. LSA junior Tim Williams, Michigan Union building manager, met with the Union building director Amy White on Monday about the sit-in. White told Williams the protest as planned would violate multiple building policies — the same ones employees are paid to enforce — including building hours and misuse of room keys. Student employees participating in the sit-in, she said, would do so at risk of losing their jobs or being replaced by other workers.
“I thought that was fair. Violating building policy comes with consequences," Williams said. “Amy suggested we sit in the hallway during business hours instead. People could be fired as a result of that specific protest."
Unions senior director Susan Pile wrote in an email statement administrators would not encroach on workers’ freedom outside their jobs.
“Student employees are an important part of our organization and would not lose their jobs for engaging in protest activity outside of their work responsibilities. We seek to provide a work environment that is supportive and flexible for student employees in all kinds of ways,” she wrote.
Still, both students agreed, administrators failed to take initiative on quelling employees’ fears. Williams said his meeting on the protest finally signaled to administrators that “we haven’t really talked to our employees and maybe we should.” He called these efforts, however, “a little late.”
Proegler scheduled a meeting with League building director Xavier Wilson, though she said he seemed to be avoiding the conversation. Getting her supervisor to understand her concerns, Proegler said, was like “pulling teeth.”
“He was dismissive of student worker concerns,” she said. “The assumption was that if (Spencer) comes, of course it’s going to be safe. Our greatest fear is that they are going to suddenly thrust the event on us in a way that disempowers us.”
At past Unions events featuring controversial speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos two years ago and Charles Murray earlier this semester, student workers still set up the rooms and were in close contact with the event, though Proegler said administrators made up most of the staff for the event itself. Part of the uncertainty around employees and Spencer stems from the vague nature of the event status — the event might not even take place in the Unions, as the buildings are difficult to secure.
“It is too early to say how we might staff an event, if one even occurs,” University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email statement.
Uncertainty around the circumstances of Spencer’s appearance is at the core of most students’ grievances with the negotiation process. In an interview with The Daily last week, University President Mark Schlissel was reluctant to detail who would be involved in deliberations around what safety meant.
“I don’t want to discuss the details — it will be people that are trusted to understand the legal issues that are involved and the public safety issues involved,” he said.
League building manager Natalie Ramos, a Social Work student, said her workers at the League — half of whom she said were students of color — have a stake in the definition of safety.
“As a Latina woman of color, I want the right to determine my own safety. And as a supervisor, I don’t want to obligate other students of color to come to (an event with Spencer) and direct them,” she said.
“I would feel an immense amount of guilty and mental burden to take all this effort, but to no avail," Ramos continued. "We don’t think people are listening."
Given Pile’s stated flexibility, all three employees agreed students likely would not be penalized for not working the event. Williams noted, though, event duties can only be shirked so far.
“Students would likely be asked to be there, but maybe we would be exempted," he said. "But even then, temporary workers, who are often more disenfranchised and vulnerable, cannot call in sick. You can’t get robots to staff the event. Someone’s going to have to do it."