The labor beat: How student journalists cover campus workplaces

When Ohio University neglected to prorate student meal plans for a short week in November, the mistake left students with 14 meals to use in only two days. Camera in hand, Will Drabold visited campus eatery Boyd Market to photograph the empty shelves after the rush.

However, within minutes, a student worker told Drabold that photography was not allowed in the market.

“There should be no difference if I have a camera in Boyd Market or if I’m standing on the college green,” Drabold said. “I can’t see how you can consider that anything but public, taxpayer-funded property.”

But university spokeswoman Katie Quaranta said that interior spaces on campus, including markets, dining halls, offices and classrooms, are not considered open forums by the university, which can place restrictions on photos and videos in these places.

Drabold said that this incident reflected a broader campus policy at OU, under which workers are not allowed to speak to members of the press.

“The worker who kicked me out of the market was really worried that I was going to print his name,” he said. “He was afraid that there was going to be retribution from his bosses against him. He was intimidated by the system that this university has set up.”

University policy is only one barrier that the student press faces when attempting to cover campus- and worker-related issues. Contract terms, employment culture and unions can also influence a student journalist’s access to sources and physical spaces while reporting. Collectively, these factors could undercut or eliminate a writer’s story.

“There have definitely been stories we simply have not written because we can’t get anybody to talk to us,” Drabold said. “It makes reporting very hard, it definitely leaves stories untouched and a lot of people don’t even want to talk anonymously because they’re afraid to have an opinion either way.”

Explicit barriers to important faculty sources

Sometimes, to discourage discussion around a controversial issue, school administrators issue gag orders on faculty members, cutting the student press’s access to university sources.

When drafting faculty contracts in early 2014, Central New Mexico Community college administrators proposed language to limit the faculty’s ability to talk to the student press.

According to a letter sent by vice president for full-union faculty Andy Russell to Jonathan Baca, a copy editor with student newspaper The CNM Chronicle, nothing “inflammatory, derogatory, or disruptive to good labor-management relations” could be included in communications with the student press.

Baca told the Student Press Law Center at the time that the language was so vague that he was worried unionized instructors “will take it to mean that they can’t come to The CNM Chronicle with legitimate concerns about anything regarding the union.”

During the fall of that year, student journalists at Florida community college faced a similar situation when the president of Pensacola State College told faculty members they were violating state law by talking to student journalists about contract negotiations since public employees cannot “exploit a relationship with a student for personal gain or advantage.”

“What we’re trying to ensure is that students are not embroiled in labor matters at an institution,” college president Ed Meadows told Inside Higher Ed at the time. Meadows also said that local professional press could more appropriately report about contract negotiations at the school.

In a letter to Meadows, the United Faculty of Florida claimed the president’s interpretation of state law was invalid, voicing concerns that his administration acted “not only to bully PSCFA and its members,” but also “to harass student reporters.”

Fear of retaliation

When talking to the press, university workers may also face informal pressures absent from policy, fearing for their jobs, livelihoods and immigration statuses.

Matt Lemas, a managing editor for The Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California, said that although he could easily talk to workers during a January 2015 wage increase strike on campus, it was challenging for other student reporters to find sources during subsequent negotiations.

“One reporter was trying to interview workers at their place of employment, at campus eateries and places of the sort, and it was incredibly difficult to find employees willing to speak on the record and use their names,” he said. “There was a fear of not expressing the goal of their cause in an articulate manner. Many times workers felt that they were not the proper voice and there was a fear of their words being used against them by the university because they were still in agreements.”

Lemas said USC campus workers, who sometimes staff privately operated eateries, are often hesitant to speak out against working conditions they believe are unjust.

“It really takes a brave worker or faculty member to be a voice for their cause because if what they’re saying puts the university in a negative light, there’s a fear they could be reprimanded by university officials,” he said. “That fear of retaliation proves an obstacle in getting workers to come forward.”

When Lucia He first started reporting about wage theft at Epicurean, an eatery on Georgetown University’s campus, she noticed some workers were hesitant to talk. Some workers said the restaurant owner told them not to speak out about underpayment, threatening their jobs and immigration statuses, He said.

“The bottom line for these workers was that the feared for their jobs,” she said. “They were sacred and felt like while they were being treated unfairly, if they gave their names and their employer found out, they might get fired. In this specific case, the threat of deportation was also huge.”

The power of unionization

Erin Donnelly, a reporter for The Daily Bruin at the University of California, Los Angeles, said she thinks her university is more accountable to the community and is less likely to threaten university workers because it is public.

“When you’re employed by the state, you’re a lot more accountable to these things.” she said. “In that sense, I think the employees are a lot freer here. It always comes back to the issue of political accountability. When we have issues on campus, it’s not just about the workers.”

Mina Corpuz, who often writes about labor issues for Boston University’s The Daily Free Press, said the presence of a union plays a greater role in the accessibility of sources than the public or private nature of an institution.

“Even if it’s a private or public institution, it’s still going to be a matter of people from a union addressing some sort of university administration,” she said. “Contracts are still contracts and negotiations are still negotiations.”

When reporting about dissatisfied custodians, mailroom operators, groundskeepers and skilled trades workers at BU in fall 2014, Corpuz found that the workers happily talked to the student press “to get the message out to students who wouldn’t have known what was going on.”

Bade echoed the impact of unionization on source accessibility, stating that ever since Georgetown University cafeteria workers unionized in 2011, they’ve been more willing to talk to reporters.

“For me, it was always difficult to get someone in their work environment to talk,” he said. “But since the unionization, we’ve had good media contacts with cafeteria workers. When you go through a union, the union will make sure a source doesn’t get fired for talking.”

Donnelly said that because UC workers are included in a statewide union, labor strikes are common, reducing the necessity of investigative work by student reporters.

“It’s the best news peg for us to wait and see if a protest is happening,” she said. “In the meantime, we stick most of our coverage on union leaders, and if there are updates mid-protest we’ll talk to the heads of the union.”

Alex Torpey, a UCLA sophomore who works alongside workers in a campus cafeteria, said that the statewide nature of the university’s union, AFSCME 3299, makes labor issues on campus more public. However, he said that workers often stick to scripted statements when speaking to reporters so that they do not “compromise the solidarity of their position.”

AFSCME 3299 Spokesman Todd Stenhouse said that punishment for UC workers who speak to the press has “not been an issue” and that the union encourages dialogue between members and student reporters.

“Part of what being union means is the right to strike and the right to have a voice on the job,” he said. “Students are inextricably linked to the fights we wage in the workplace and the solutions we find in the workplace. What’s really important for us when working with student reporters is helping them understand the issues.”

Despite challenges, a rewarding beat

Though reporting on labor issues presents distinct obstacles, there are sometimes tactics available to student journalists when covering workplace and worker issues on campus.

Lemas said that teaming with a student organizations that supports workers at USC helped him gain access to sources who were previously hesitant to talk.

“There was a student organization on campus that was a main supporter of the hospitality workers’ fight to increase their wages, and we used them as an intermediary to introduce us to the workers,” he said. “A college campus is so connected, so we were able to talk to them and have them talk to the workers to see if they could budge on the matter, which ultimately helped.”

Gavin Bade, who worked alongside He covering the wage theft allegations, said that student publication The Voice granted anonymity liberally when reporting about Epicurean, the Georgetown restaurant

“Anonymity is just another tool that you can use to get people out of their shells to talk to you. A lot of times it really helps,” he said. “Coming forward and talking about issues in your workplace, especially for the most precarious workers, is an incredibly scary and potentially dangerous situation from the perspective of their livelihoods.”

Despite many the obstacles to sourcing the story, He said that that writing the Epicurean story was a rewarding process.

“My experience introduced me to the power that journalism has in the sense that if we didn’t write this story no one would know about this,” she said. “I don’t know if current employment policies are better or not, hopefully they are. But in some sense, we brought awareness to the issue.”