Reflecting on a year of pandemic mutual aid, SOLR organizers emphasize importance of continued support


Illustration by Nathanial Ortiz

SOLR has raised over $90,000 for over 400 workers since starting a mutual aid fund in March 2020.

Caroline Brew, Reporter

Students Organizing for Labor Rights has raised over $90,000 for over 400 workers since March 2020, according to Weinberg junior and SOLR member Abbey Zhu.

SOLR, a community organization of Northwestern students building solidarity with campus workers, started their mutual aid fund last March to support Northwestern dining and hospitality workers during the pandemic.

On March 30, 2020, administrators announced plans to provide regular compensation and benefits to dining workers for Spring Quarter in partnership with Compass Group, the University’s food service provider. However, workers have repeatedly told The Daily and written to the community that they haven’t received compensation from the University.

“Even though it’s been a year, the University has done nothing to support workers or provide them back pay or the health insurance they need,” Zhu said.

SOLR has been sending workers a survey to share their funding requests or concerns, such as falling behind on a bill. Veronica Reyes, who has worked at NU since 2010, said students also check in with workers in the dining halls.

“They’re regular students who use the dining halls, so… sometimes they just come to say hi and that they miss us,” Reyes said. “They know us, they’re our friends.”

Zhu said encouraging students to donate on social media and starting a monthly donation system has helped maintain a consistent amount of funds.

However, donations have declined throughout the year. Zhu said it’s because people generally only feel the need to donate in moments of crisis.

“When they don’t see that super visible moment of crisis, they think this violence isn’t happening anymore,” Zhu said. “But the violence is happening every day because Northwestern and Compass Group have done nothing since laying off all of those workers back in March 2020 to make sure they could get through this pandemic.”

In response to claims surrounding the lack of financial compensation, a Compass spokesperson wrote in an email to The Daily that the group provided health coverage through October 2020 and workers qualified for state and federal unemployment benefits.

SOLR released petitions in September 2020 and again this February — neither of which has officially received a response by NU administrators, according to Zhu.

The demands included rehiring and providing health insurance to laid-off workers, fulfilling the promise to pay workers for lost wages last spring and granting workers access to COVID-19 testing on campus.

Reyes said one of her biggest concerns is that if exposed to the virus, workers have to choose between getting paid or quarantining, as they do not receive quarantine pay.

“It’s scary because maybe someone will come to work because they cannot pay the rent if they skip two weeks of work,” Reyes said.

Weinberg seniors and SOLR members Patricia Janick and Hanbyul-Jenny Kang said they met privately with University President Morton Schapiro and Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier in March to discuss SOLR’s demands.

Janick said Schapiro deflected blame to Compass for the treatment of workers, stating that the University’s contract with the company does not allow them to support workers in the way that they want. The University did not respond to The Daily’s request to confirm this statement.

“My understanding is if Northwestern truly wanted to prioritize the well-being of service workers, they would have severed ties with Compass and implemented policies that adequately financially supported them, rather than just subcontracting through this group and then blaming the group for any problems that occur,” Janick said.

SOLR’s February petition also stated that NU’s $83.4 million budget surplus is dependent on laying off staff. The petition referenced an analysis by Northwestern University Graduate Workers that concluded the University should use the surplus to rehire all of its laid-off workers and provide funding extensions along with health insurance packages.

However, Janick and Kang said Schapiro told them the surplus cannot be used to support workers.

“The overall takeaway (from the meeting) is that they didn’t care what we were going to say,” Kang said. “They didn’t care about the petition. It didn’t feel like what SOLR was advocating for really mattered to them in their decision making process.”

Although Kang did not enjoy the conversation with the administrators, she said she would opt to have another due to potential long-term benefits of enacting change within the administration. In the meantime, she said she hopes the NU community continues researching and engaging in mutual aid beyond SOLR.

“Need doesn’t disappear because inherently the system we live in is violent, and people are stripped of their needs,” Kang said. “If you’ve given to SOLR that’s really wonderful, but after you leave college, be sure to seek out mutual aid funds there or practice a lifestyle ingrained in the kindness and love of mutual aid.”

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