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I am waiting

Y ou’re standing at a bus stop when one, two, three, four, five, six full busses roar past. You’re late to class. When you finally catch one, your driver’s mind is racing because they can’t leave work to go pick up a sick child from school or because they can’t go to a scheduled doctor’s appointment at which they’re supposed to find out whether or not they have cancer. You stop and your friends mutter that the driver is lazy because they’ve left their seat to go get some water when, in reality, Duke Transit policy states that they must leave the bus order to have a drink, no matter the weather or their health condition. You get off that bus to find your University isn’t the shining beacon of progressive thought you figured it was or hoped it was capable of being.

I had a meeting Monday with two bus drivers to discuss their concerns with the way Duke is treating them. And I came away shocked, but sadly unsurprised. After all, I knew that there must have been reasons why folk in Durham call Duke “The Plantation.” Even excluding the racially charged meaning (which you really can’t in this case), the word conjures images I didn’t see in the viewbook. Could it be they call us this because our higher-ups value their labor over their lives? Could it be, as they allege, because they are harassed by supervisors, pushed to make runs in unreasonable times and encouraged to use vacation days as sick leave?

The allegations I heard were old hat to me. They said that Transportation Services was trying to reduce the number of full-time employees in order to weaken the union (About three-fifths of Duke’s 52 bus drivers are unionized—Local 1328 of the Amalgamated Transit Union). They also leveled claims of falsified documents, unwarranted disciplinary action and harassment following standard length “10-7” bathroom breaks. They said that their supervisor will ignore employees who file grievances, will deny medical leave even when presented with a doctor’s note and will make workers take vacation time against their will.

Of course, abusing workers is en vogue right now from Maquiladora plants to seasonal farm workers to fast food employees. Books upon books are written about the ways in which our economic system, in replicating the plantation mentality, reduces people to figures and otherwise dehumanizes labor. For employers, it just makes good financial sense. Lower overhead means higher profit. But to me it makes no sense. Let me tell you why.

First, I’d like the people driving me around to not be hassled when they’re doing so. I know how worried I can get about something like taking a test. Okay, so exchange “sick child” or “cancer screening” for “taking a test,” and then put me behind the wheel of a 40-foot long bus running constantly from East to West and back during peak hours on a hot day when I can’t get a drink unless I leave the bus which I can’t because it’s busy and the new memo said… phew. Get the picture? This isn’t even mentioning the extra pressure of service cuts made in the last two years which have significantly reduced the number of busses running—all done in the name of sound economics.

Next, I’d like my University to acknowledge its workers’ concerns, which, allegedly, they haven’t. I don’t want to be thought of as a plantation owner any longer. I don’t want to believe that this is the way the world works—profit always over people, money always over life. It takes our society beyond the notion of community, beyond the idea that everyone can have meaningful and respectable work.

Shouldn’t Duke, as a respected institution, take the lead in showing us all a new way to employ people? Shouldn’t we put into practice all of the things we’ve learned from labor studies and history at large and aim to correct the injustices of the past? Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we do better than hiring hatchet men to abuse workers for higher profit margins? I think so.

As students, we have the unique role of being tied down by next to nothing—no real job, no mortgages, no families, etc. If we have concerns about the direction our University, and consequently our nation and world, we have the voice to let people know about it. We can take actions without fear of any form of reprisal, be it physical, economic or social. And the time has come for me to do just that.

Until I am satisfied, I will sit in solidarity, real solidarity, with our University’s bus drivers to protest not only their unfair and unnecessarily bad working conditions but also our administration’s complicit stance in perpetuating old systems of economic and racial dominance. I will take a folding chair and sit at the West Campus bus stop weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., a standard eight hour day, with exceptions made for class, food and work—exceptions not everyone has the luxury of enjoying. My reasons are selfish. I don’t want my University to stand for things like this; I don’t want my society and my peers to feel that this is the only way a community works. I will be starting today, Thursday, the day of this publication. And I welcome anyone and everyone to join me.

At the same time, the drivers will renew their efforts to contact administration and discuss recent policy changes in an open forum. I hope that student leaders will lend an ear (and more) to the situation by offering support to the workers’ desires.

If we truly are concerned, we must make concrete change in both philosophy and action at home before engaging society, especially when home is Duke and when we are students.

This most recent call for justice, respect and community has now been made. I am waiting for an answer.

Aaron Kirschenfeld is a Trinity sophomore.

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