In a closed-door faculty meeting this week, University President Michael Roth reportedly said of R.J. Julia’s hiring practices that “stories of unfair labor practices are fiction propelled by the authors and the students involved,” according to students and faculty in attendance. This declaration is ironic considering how recently (last week) the President’s office was telling concerned students that he had little knowledge of R.J. Julia’s activities and implying that they were not his responsibility. Roth’s comments, though, come in the midst of a coordinated response to claims of unfair labor practices by Wesleyan’s administration and R.J. Julia. I would like to address some of their weak attempts to fact-check worker concerns and outline the problems that remain.
First, President Roth is wrong to say that concerns about hiring practices and wages are “propelled” by students. Students became aware of these issues because workers brought them to us. If President Roth thinks that the issues and concerns are fictional, he should be willing to say that to bookstore workers themselves, not just to faculty members behind closed doors. At a more basic level, Connecticut’s minimum wage is not a living wage, and workers deserve better, regardless of who runs the bookstore. President Roth has sought in recent months to establish himself as an anti-Trump pundit. He would do well to remember that before Donald Trump entered politics, he was exploiting workers and belittling their concerns.
R.J. Julia has also claimed that every worker being offered minimum wage had received it before. This account leaves out the fact, revealed to USLAC in its meeting with R.J. Julia, that the store did not offer a job to a current bookstore worker because that worker had requested a wage raise above the minimum. R.J. Julia has also claimed that its long schedule for notifying workers was both known to workers in advance and reasonable given the circumstances. Workers have stated that the schedule for interviews was far from clear.
R.J. Julia and the administration also seem to object to the idea that the “R.J. Julia Experience” was presented to workers in racially loaded terms and instead claim that the “experience” concerns people being interested in selling books. People who want to evaluate that description should read the Argus article containing a workers’ comments about how the experience was framed. Unless Michael Roth and R.J. Julia are claiming that that account is a “fiction,” readers should judge the comments for themselves and determine whether they had racial implications. Furthermore, workers who have spoken up have felt as though R.J. Julia was attempting to silence them and have been urged to stop talking about conditions at the store. This should appall our president, who has devoted himself to the cause of free speech and academic freedom.
R.J. Julia and the administration have chosen to nitpick student statements and Argus articles rather than worry about the fact that they are basing a new enterprise associated with our university on a foundation of low wages and intimidation.
Wesleyan students are eager to welcome a new bookstore to our community and R.J. Julia seems to have a lot to offer. We cannot, though, accept the creation of a new venture that is based on low wages and intimidation. Regardless of the attempts to obfuscate, workers should be paid a living wage, they should not be intimidated for speaking out, and they should all be offered their jobs back. If the administration feels differently, it should find a new student body. Enough of these attempts at public relations. It is time for R.J. Julia and our university’s administration to stop attempting to put this issue to bed with dubious fact-checking and to get serious about making sure that bookstore workers are rehired, paid fairly and treated well.