Luis Saavedra, a Research Associate at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute (CUFPI) and a student in the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy Masters in Public Health program, reflects on his experience as an undocumented undergraduate student in the early 2010s at CUNY and the parallels with the experience of CUNY students working in food. As one of the authors of our Making CUNY a Place to Educate and Organize New York City Food Workers: A Call to Action report, Luis makes a call to action for CUNY to expand labor rights education on workplace rights and protections. 

The fall of 2010 marked the beginning of a transformative journey for me as an undocumented freshman at Lehman College at the time. Like many undocumented students at Lehman College and the City University of New York (CUNY) system at large, I was left to navigate a CUNY environment lacking the support necessary to ensure and protect my health and well-being as well as reach my full potential. Some of the barriers faced by undocumented students at CUNY included the failure to apply New York’s in-state tuition policy for undocumented students uniformly across campuses; the lack of financial assistance and scholarships for undocumented students; and a failure to understand the lived experience of CUNY undocumented students. Yet it is at Lehman College where some students and I, equipped with organizing tools and leadership development provided by an undocumented youth-led organization, empowered ourselves to form the first student group by and for undocumented students at CUNY–the Lehman College DREAM Team. With the Lehman College DREAM Team in place, we organized and mobilized to demand better services for undocumented students on campus and throughout CUNY, and joined advocacy efforts for the New York State DREAM Act, a bill that would provide access to New York’s Tuition Assistance Program to undocumented students. And ultimately tied ourselves to organizing and advocacy efforts that led to the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, a goal of undocumented youth sparked by the disastrous failure of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in the fall of 2010. 

Thus, I cannot help but see parallels with my own experience as an undocumented student at CUNY with the experience of CUNY students working in food. For the 40,000 CUNY students working in the food sector, the largest single employment sector for our working students, they are left to navigate a sector with below-average wages, limited benefits, few pathways to career advancement, and inadequate health and safety protections. Not only do these conditions threaten their health and well-being but they also interfere in their learning and social environments at CUNY and at home. 

CUNY cannot fail these students as it did for me and my fellow undocumented students a decade ago. 

In a recent report, Making CUNY a Place to Educate and Organize New York City Food Workers: A Call to Action, together with Emma Vignola, Melanie Kruvelis, and Nicholas Freudenberg, we presented a vision of a CUNY that actively and organically plays a role in ensuring students working in food understand and defend their rights as workers; a CUNY that transforms the workplaces where these students work through partnerships with unions and labor organizations; and a CUNY that empowers and supports students in their living, learning and working environments. We made a call for action and presented this vision because our research revealed poor working conditions for students working in food. Through a series of interviews, students reported hazardous and physically demanding work (i.e. heavy lifting, repetitive motion injuries, exposures to temperatures, lack of breaks, etc.), little control over scheduling, lack of access to benefits, and interactions with aggressive, unruly customers, and sexual harassment from customers as well as coworkers and managers. Not only were these conditions detrimental to the health and well-being of the students but they also harmed their learning and social environments. Students expressed difficulty in managing their work and class schedules, resulting in little time to socialize and participate in extracurricular activities as well as keep up with their school work. 

CUNY’s mission to provide a “first-rate public education to all students, regardless of means or backgrounds,” is weakened if it overlooks students’ working and living conditions. Students’ lived experiences must always be considered if CUNY is to support these students reach their full potential. And the lived experience of students working in food demands immediate action from CUNY. As an undocumented student at Lehman College in 2010, I never expected CUNY to single-handedly bring state and federal policy change but I did expect CUNY to actively help undocumented students navigate their lived experience through understanding, resources, and guidance. I know it’s a monumental task for CUNY to improve working conditions and transform workplaces as it also requires action from other stakeholders such as city and state policymakers, but CUNY can equip students with the labor rights education and organizing tools needed for maximizing their potential and be organizers of change. One way to accomplish this is through partnerships with unions and labor organizations.

Early in the fall of 2023, other colleagues and I organized with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) to present a workshop to students working in food. Titled “Don’t Quit–Organize! A Free Workshop for CUNY Students on Workplace Organizing,” the workshop focused on how to have an organizing conversation with coworkers and identify the workplace issues they cared about. Students also heard from the experience of a former Hunter College alumnus working at Barboncino, the first unionized pizzeria. Organizing is hard work but with partnerships with labor unions such as 32BJ SEIU and labor organizations such as EWOC, CUNY can improve and transform students’ working conditions. It’s ironic that it was labor groups (32BJ SEIU, PSC-CUNY) that supported the advocacy efforts of undocumented youth during my undergraduate years at Lehman College and here I am calling for CUNY to partner with these groups to support students working in food. The organizing continues. 

Article by: Luis Saavedra, Research Associate, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and Master’s Student in Public Health at CUNY SPH