Working Peoples’ Wonk: Carlos Mark Vera
Many of today’s leaders have the inclination to enforce moral obligation. Not all fighters are leaders and not all leaders are fighters, but occasionally someone comes along who happens to be both.
At American University, that someone is Carlos Mark Vera.
Vera and his family migrated to Los Angeles in 1998 after fleeing the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. They temporarily lived in public housing and had family members who worked as cleaning ladies.
“Those experiences really shaped my views toward social justice, income inequality and everything happening in this country,” Vera said.
After coming to AU, Vera joined the Student Workers Alliance (SWA), which fights for the fair treatment of AU’s cleaning and dining staff. He left SWA when the group wanted to focus on workers in Bangladesh rather than at AU, and he started his own campaign. As the success of his efforts grew, he rejoined SWA and has taken on a leadership role.
“We would like to help workers because they’re being overworked,” Vera said. He believes that AU students, though passionate about aiding others on a global scale, can be blind to the workers issues happening on campus on a daily basis.
“They’re helping all of us,” Vera said of AU’s workers. “Not just student activists.”
Members of the dining staff are contracted, by Aramark, to work long and difficult shifts; executives in the housing and dining department have at times pushed out veteran workers and added more buildings like Cassell Hall without hiring new staff to clean it.
Learning about workers at AU has led Vera off of campus as well. He’s gone, to Capitol Hill, the White House and the European Union in an effort to give workers a voice.
Last year, championing workers’ rights was “either now or never” for Vera. Since then, he has led the Undergraduate Senate, Residence Hall Association and even the AU Student Government Board to support committees that he co-founded.
“The mentality of student activists, even Student Worker’s Alliance in the past, is, ‘Well, let’s get 10 people to protest outside MGC and 20 petitions to take to the President.’ That doesn’t do anything.”
The new coalition Vera and SWA are forming follows the mentality that “the more people involved, the better.”
The underlying issue for Vera and others in SWA is not anti-establishment, anti-AU or even anti-Aramark. In fact, Vera is acquainted with the administrative staff, since he was an AU Ambassador for a time and is currently the Student Representative for the Latino Alumni Alliance.
He says his motivation to help meet the needs of housing and dining staff stems from personal compassion for the well-being of workers, not from hatred of the University.
“That old lady suffering, being made to clean two buildings—that could be my grandma,” Vera said.
The past year and a half of campaigning has been demanding on Vera.
“When I decided to go public, it was tough. I got lashback fro the administration and people I thought I was close to.”
With the new coalition of committees Vera’s helped found, the future for worker’s rights activists looks bright once he graduates this spring.
“Thankfully now I’m not doing this by myself. We have a large team, and it grows and grows.”