It’s irresistible to beat up on rich, elite universities like Harvard, Yale and Stanford when they disregard the rights of low-wage workers. (I myself enjoyed beating up on Stanford just last month.) But workers who toil on lesser-known campuses deserve justice, too. At Nova Southeastern University in Broward County, Florida, janitors have been attempting to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The workers, mostly Haitians, have been enduring terrible wages, no benefits and no potable water. Many have lost their jobs for trying to organize, according to a National Labor Relations Board complaint filed by the workers. Often, when august institutions of higher learning find their inner Wal-Mart – as they frequently do, when their workers try to organize — students and professors rally in support of the workers. Nearby University of Miami is a good example – there, workers were able to organize thanks to aggressive action from the campus community. Nova has taken some extreme steps to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Earlier this year, it appeared that the university was not only violating workers’ freedom of association, but also the free speech rights of faculty and students. For a few weeks in February, the university blocked emails with "seiu" in the address, according to Tanya Aquino, a spokeswoman for SEIU Local 11. (This way, the only updates professors and students received on the labor situation came from Nova’s president.) University officials have also discouraged students – most of whom are commuters, and therefore rely on email for information about campus life — from sending each other updates on the workers’ struggle. Some students have been admonished in threatening ways, with officials implying that they might be disciplined for participating in the campaign. (Nova officials did not respond to a request for comment.) The result of all this, according to Aquino, is that few faculty and students are willing to stand up up for the rights of the Nova workers. It’s a dreadful example of how, in suppressing workers’ rights, a university can diminish itself as a place of higher learning. How much could one learn at a school that forbids the expression of views on such critical human rights questions?