Activists captured an awkward confrontation with millionaire University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias and a campus worker on video—right outside one of the school’s most expensive cafeterias.
After someone off-camera asked the college president if he would listen to workers seeking a living wage, Nikias enthusiastically told the heckler, “You have nothing to worry about it.”
But hospitality worker Abigail Lopez gave the university administrator a piece of her mind and relayed how campus workers earning poverty-level wages have plenty to worry about—like paying bills and buying food. What ensued was the longest elevator wait of Max Nikias’ entire life. Lopez couldn’t make it more than a few sentences before tearing up, much to the discomfort of Nikias.
SEE ALSO: USC Workers Rally For Higher Wages
“She saw her opportunity to make a plea to President Nikias yesterday while she was on her lunch break,” Lopez’s daughter, Victoria Cabot, said after I reached out to the family via email.
“My mother has always been an inspiration to us because she sacrificed her entire life to make sure she gave us what we needed, she’s an exemplary mother in every way. We struggled our entire lives, but we never went to bed hungry—even if it meant she had to work three jobs at one point to support us.”
Campus workers have been engaged in a prolonged battle for increased pay, a battle advocates consider insulting given the university’s considerable wealth. The video circulated on the eve of a labor rally and amid rumors of a possible strike. The day began with members of the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice attempting to deliver a petition to Nikias’ office calling for an increase in worker pay. The group later posted on Facebook that Nikias’ staff “would not even open the door” and “hung-up on a clergy person mid-sentence.”
A 40-year-old single parent of three children, Lopez supports her household on roughly $19,200 annually, after taxes, union fees and health care costs, according her oldest daughter, Victoria—herself a full-time student at Pasadena City College. Lopez’s youngest daughter is a sophomore in high school and her 22-year-old son, Victor, was also a hospitality worker at USC until recently, when Victoria alleges he was “harassed and discriminated against to his breaking point.”
Victoria said her mother has not received any backlash for her comments from the university.
Despite her course load, Victoria says she actually helps pay for bills and rent because what her mother makes at USC “is not enough.”
“She does what she can to help me pay for my books or supplies,” Victoria said.
Nikias, the country’s 13th highest-paid university president, makes over $1.5 million in annual pay as the chief administrator of Southern California’s largest private employer. The cost of attendance for students is $64,694 per year—nearly three times the amount someone paid $11 an hour for 40 hours per week would make before taxes. The university is also sitting on a pile of endowment money that totals over $4 billion and ranked third in total fundraising last year, behind only Stanford and Harvard.
“My mother does not see the students as ‘customers,’ she loves them all and understands how stressful midterms and finals are,” Lopez’s daughter, Victoria, said. “She has consoled her fair share of students because they didn’t get the grades they thought they would, and slips them a cupcake in hopes of being that one person who cared.”
“A lot of these workers go above and beyond for these students, and yet they are treated like the lower class staff.”
I asked Victoria what it’s like to see a parent publicly stand up to an employer, out there for the entire Internet to see—now stored on YouTube’s servers forever.
“I am proud of my mother for giving the workers at USC a face President Nikias had to answer to, they aren’t just numbers on reports or disposable. She is my hero.”
8:45 p.m. Update—When reached for comment about unrest from USC Hospitality and Auxiliary Services workers over wages, the university issued the following statement:
USC has been the home to Local 11-represented employees since 1971. We are offering a very fair proposal with new enhancements for these employees and we are confident that we will reach agreement.
In addition to wage and health benefits that compare very favorably to similar settings outside the university, Local 11 employees at USC also are eligible for some other valuable university benefits offered to faculty and staff, including free tuition for themselves and their dependents, retirement contributions from the university and more. We also provide extensive training, and through that training, the opportunity for upward mobility in their employment here.
We are proud that we have continued to grow the number of job opportunities for Local 11 employees in the past five years. We also are proud of the length of service of many of our Local 11 employees including those who have children who have taken advantage of free tuition and earned degrees here.
We look forward to reaching agreement on a new contract.
— Thomas Sayles, Senior Vice President for University Relations