Note: I was assigned to cover the protests at UC Davis in 2007 regarding the university’s food service workers, who wanted to be employed directly by the university, instead of being subcontracted out by Sodexho, the company that provides the university’s food services. After hearing comments from students about how “irresponsible” and “stupid” it was to participate in a planned civil disobedience, I decided to interview a woman who was planning on being arrested during the protests and knew the possible consequences it would have on her future. This article was published in The California Aggie, but is no longer available online.
Arooj Ahmad graduated at the end of winter quarter this year with a political science degree from UC Davis. She is currently a food-service worker for UC Davis. Ahmad is one of the students planning to participate in the scheduled civil disobedience, which will be taking place at an undisclosed location on campus today.
She says she is planning on being arrested.
“But it isn’t a spontaneous or chaotic thing,” Ahmad said. “It took a lot for me to get to this point.”
While I was job-hunting, my friend told me about her job in the Tercero Dining Commons,” she said. “How you got free food, how flexible it was and how they were always hiring. So I signed up; I needed the money.”
According to Ahmad, like many workers who work at the dining commons, she didn’t know that she wasn’t a university worker with UC Davis health benefits.
“I found out about it later,” she said. “After I realized I was paying 95 percent more than university workers for health insurance. After that I knew that I was getting paid less for the work I did. It’s not that we are here to say that we hate our jobs. We like our jobs and do them well. We just want the recognition for doing so.”
With her family against Ahmad’s participation in today’s civil disobedience, and her participation in American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), an organization currently working to get UC Davis to stop contracting out workers through Sodexho, Ahmad says she knows fully what she is doing and the implications of her actions.
“My father is more or less disabled and does not work,” she said. “My mother is a housewife. She does not drive and is solely dependent upon others to run simple errands like going to the grocery store. Her limited English leaves her without the means to get by just through public transportation even.
“Last quarter, my dad was in such an ill state of health that he often could not manage to get up and take my 15-year-old sister to school,” she said. “I’m needed at home, but then there’s this campaign.”
Ahmad said her parents expected her to get a job and help them out financially.
“My parents expected me to have a college degree, achieve a steady job that would have a basic 401k, benefits, comfort … essentially stability,” Ahmad said.
“I am working as a service worker and organizing.” Ahmad does not get paid for the work she does for AFSCME, another issue for her family, she said.
“My dad is already upset that I am working as an organizer on something that does not fit his standards of the American Dream,” she said. “There’s no money in that, only stress and instability. Yes, I work late, I am stressed and I don’t get much sleep between working and organizing. Before I had work, organizing and school and studying.”
Ahmad continues to work for Sodexho at UC Davis because of the flexibility the catering division at UC Davis offers her.
“My dad’s condition got worse. He needs me at home because Mom doesn’t drive. I run errands during the day from 8 to 3 pm but I can work from 6 to midnight,” Ahmad said.
“As a student and then as a Sodexho employee, I have submitted myself wholeheartedly into fighting for and winning this campaign,” she said. “I believe in it and I believe in the folks I’m working for and with. However, despite this romanticism there is the very obvious reality of my family and their needs. And then there’s the decision to take part in the civil disobedience.”
Ahmad said she is unsure how her family will react if she is arrested today.
“They have such a melancholy view of what I chose to do that if they were to learn of my arrest I am sure it will embarrass them,” she said. “And all along I keep telling myself that I’m doing this for them. Some of the career workers I have come across, people I have met though this campaign, my fellow students and their family backgrounds – it all comes back to my family.”
“Were my parents to meet with contracted-out workers at this campus, I’m sure they would fully sympathize with their grievances, but I will be the first to admit that it is one thing to voice concern and a whole other step to relinquish something of yours in solidarity. That is not to say my parents are selfish. They are just parents. They want what’s best for me and I understand and love them for it. But this is my choice. I feel like I’m paying homage to my parents’ values and beliefs by standing up for something I believe in.”
Ahmad acknowledges that being arrested with have consequences that will be difficult to deal with.
“The choice to take part in civil disobedience was not difficult. It is the ramifications of the act that will be difficult to cope with,” she said. “What if when I apply for a job I wouldn’t get it because I have a ‘criminal’ background? What if something goes wrong and I get hurt in some way? And all along I keep telling myself, reassuring myself – it doesn’t matter.
“I feel that in the context of this struggle my concerns are trivial,” Ahmad said. “Change isn’t easy.”