The Cost of Labor Invisibility

Like many busy college students, I’m not perfect– I might sometimes forget to do my dishes on time, or leave my bed unmade until it’s time to climb back in. The situation with the shared, public space is somewhat different: after a day full of football game tailgating and unabashed public drinking, do students know who’s responsible for the mess they leave behind, or how USC’s campus returns to its pristine state by the next morning?

On my way to catch the bus to the airport in the wee hours of the morning last week, I encountered a USC Facilities Management Services worker picking up trash on the sidewalk of Figueroa St. It was 5:00 AM. In my four years at USC, I haven’t ever really actively noticed these integral workers on campus until now.

Regardless of their gender, USC’s FMS workers engage in reproductive labor– care taking duties that allow productive, paid labor to take place. Kind of like how your mom might have done your laundry and fed you home-cooked meals to ensure your productivity in school and your later career, these workers help us be productive students, except they’re paid in this situation.

Despite the importance of reproductive labor on our collective lives, it tends to be feminized, and in turn, devalued. Just recently, USC’s employees lost their subsidized transit passes (meanwhile, Pres. Nikias gets a private driver!), confronted Nikias about their poverty wage to no avail, and protested the low pay at Keck Medical Center. When our school is one of Southern California’s biggest employers, and we can afford to straight up buy UCLA, it’s sad to see these integral workers being systematically undervalued and disrespected.

What does the invisibility of these jobs mean in the bigger picture? First off, it lends itself to the ironic duality of the public/private divide: cleaning messes is done for a public benefit, but must be done privately at five in the morning so as to ensure it is not seen or won’t bother anyone. In turn, students may not be mindful about their own lifestyles because they don’t witness the reproductive labor that is maintaining their (hopeful) success in the classroom and future careers, and may not value this type of labor enough. It also doesn’t help that this type of labor is feminized, in juxtaposition with the lucrative, masculinized career tracks facilitated by college degrees earned by students in the classrooms next door to the hidden broom closets. The separation between these two circles has caused a gap that has only recently been bridged via student/worker protests and shows of solidarity.

It may seem like these barriers are inevitable and natural, but when taking into account the legislation and enforcement of certain rules at USC, I can’t say I’m surprised by the perpetual fight for wage equality and recognition that USC’s hospitality and facility workers go through daily. It doesn’t end with the cutting of subsidized Metro passes or the worker displacement caused by the construction of the new USC Village. Whether it’s USC’s insistence on being an indirect negotiator rather than dealing with janitors’ unions, or apprehending dining hall workers for speaking Spanish on the job, it’s clear that this oppression is an active rather than a passive one.

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