For years, human rights advocates have been working to expose the horrific working conditions tomato pickers face in Florida. U.S. Attorney Doug Malloy labeled the situation on one farm as “slavery, plain and simple.” In the past 15 years, seven labor operations have been prosecuted for involuntary servitude and other related offenses.
Hoping to support the cause, the ASUCD Senate voted 8-4 last week to grant $580 to a group of six students to purchase plane tickets to a protest this weekend in Florida.
According to the bill, the students “would like to attend this event to show on-going support for the [Coalition of Immokalee Workers] as they continue to campaign against Sodexo and other unjust corporations.”
There are so many problems with this; it’s almost hard to figure out where to begin.
We’ll set aside the discrepancy between language in the bill, which pays for six plane tickets for students, and the fact that Students for Sustainable Agriculture said only five students are planning to attend.
The real question is: Why is ASUCD funding the political advocacy efforts of individual students? The purpose of ASUCD is to serve the undergraduate student body. The decisions the senate makes should have a clear and direct benefit for all undergraduates, who are forced to pay fees to the association every quarter. Buying plane tickets for a group of students to go to a protest benefits no one except those five students (none of whom are personally contributing anything to the cost of the trip, by the way).
Supporters of this bill last week claimed that this does impact all students, because Sodexo sources some of its tomatoes from Florida. The problem is, however, that this protest has nothing to do with Sodexo.
A press release from CIW makes clear that this weekend’s event is a march against Publix, a supermarket chain with grocery stores in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama.
“A caravan of farm workers … and hundreds of consumers from across the country will march for three days from Tampa to Lakeland on Apr. 16 to 18 to demand that Publix join a growing partnership among farm workers, Florida tomato growers, and retail food giants aimed at ending decades of farm labor abuse in Florida.”
The press release makes no mention of Sodexo or even any business that operates in California. If UC Davis students are really that passionate about where a Deep South grocer gets its tomatoes, good for them. But to claim that this somehow affects students on campus here in California, and moreover that ASUCD should pay for it? That’s just absurd.
Supporters also tried to justify the expense by saying the students would bring back what they learned and educate others. As nice as that sounds, that’s not what the bill said. The purpose of the trip, according to the bill, was for the students to show support for the farm workers union.
Another problem is the way this bill was handled. It was submitted as “urgent legislation,” meaning that it was introduced and voted on at the same meeting. Anyone who wanted to comment on it would not have known about it (and thus been able to voice their opinion) unless they just happened to be at that meeting. As a spending bill, it should have gone through the Business and Finance Commission, but the bill’s backers said they “weren’t able to finalize it on time.” Not handling your business in time is not a valid excuse for bypassing a system that is designed to ensure the government makes good decisions that reflect student opinion.
While it is probably legal for ASUCD to pay for this trip, it sets a dangerous precedent. From this point on ASUCD must pay for any student who comes forward asking for a similar amount of money for a different cause. If the senate votes against a similar bill to send students to Washington to protest gay marriage, those students would have grounds to sue ASUCD for not being viewpoint neutral in its funding decisions.
ASUCD cannot afford to cut a check every time a group of students wants to go to a protest. Nor should that be the role of ASUCD in the first place.
The ASUCD Senators who voted for this bill made the wrong choice. Regardless of how one feels about the plight of Florida’s farm workers, this bill is an inappropriate, unjustifiable use of student fee money. Though he may not have the votes to sustain an override, President Jack Zwald must veto the bill. It’s the only responsible choice.