After hearing about a class action lawsuit being filed against Columbia by one of the Faculty House workers, Bwog decided to ask Osmond (Ozzie) Cousins, the man who filed the lawsuit, about his reasons for filing it and what he hoped to achieve. Social justice enthusiast Tamsin Pargiter reports.
Bwog: Can you describe what you hope to accomplish with the lawsuit?
Ozzie: Well there are negotiations going on between Columbia and the union about our health insurance, which is being cut, and about wage increases, or lack thereof. This class action lawsuit is focusing on our stolen tips, which we have been going back and forth about for over 8 years. Columbia makes a tremendous amount of money by having events at Faculty House. When they have events, they charge the clients an 18-22% service charge, which the clients believe is entitled to the workers. Columbia has decided that we don’t deserve that 18-22%, and so they roll over that money into building maintenance, and we receive none of it. The lawsuit reflects Oliver Twist, as the poor boy coming forward, saying, “please, give me another bowl of porridge, because I am hungry.”
B: Why file the lawsuit now, when this has been going on for so long?
O: The lawsuit became a last resort, primarily because Columbia decided not to do anything progressive regarding our service charge and tips. A professor gave us the lawyer’s information. In my mind, it was at the right moment. The lawyer was available, so we just grabbed the opportunity.
B: Did you feel that the lawsuit was the only way for you to resolve this issue?
O: I don’t know if you watch a program called Undercover Boss, but it is a show about huge companies, where people like Bollinger, CEO’s and presidents of companies, disguise themselves as workers. They mingle with the workers and hear the gripes and complaints of their staff, they see what they go through. The point is to see what is going on inside of their companies, with the intention of improving it. It’s very touching to see leaders who really care about the individuals within their companies. I formally extend this invitation to my bosses: to Bollinger, to the racist negotiator Shelia Garvey, to Scott Wright, and to all the other demagogues of this institution: if you are serious and compassionate about our cause, then dress down, take your suits off, and come mingle with us. Come see what experiences we are having on a day-to-day basis, come see what we have to offer, how diligent, compassionate, and loyal we are. Whatever image Columbia has reflected on the outside world is dependent on us, the little people, and our dedication –we are the people behind the scenes who enable this institution to run smoothly.
B: Did the administration respond in any way when you filed the lawsuit?
O: Their only response has been underhanded and shady, they have not officially responded or mentioned the lawsuit. They deleted the mention of the service charge from the menu, and they are trying to hide it. It’s a juvenile way of dealing with the situation, because they can’t erase our memories, we know that the 18-22% was there. I expected them to respond in a way that is useful and progressive. It’s really premature for them to change it, as faculty can contest that they were paying the 18-22% prior to last Monday when they omitted it from their menu. If they thought there was nothing wrong with their service charge, why are they trying to hide it?
B: Are you concerned that Columbia might retaliate?
O: There’s always a possibility of retaliation…I don’t know how low they will stoop. If we have paperwork that says 18-22%, and they’re willing to change it and pretend that it never existed…then who knows what they will do. There is a tremendous amount of evidence that the 22% was there, and has been, for years. They have been caught red handed, but they are still trying to deny that anything has happened. You can see the evidence, and that is why there are so many people willing to support us. Show us that you respect and appreciate us by giving us enough money to feed our families, by giving us money that we have worked hard for.
B: If Columbia did retaliate against you, do you think there would be a student response on campus?
O: Definitely. There’s hundreds of students willing to claw at Columbia, for lots of reasons. When you come here you get the sense that there is a community, one that you would be proud to be a part of, only to find out that they treat their own workers so shabbily. That is why students are so passionate about our cause. The students, their parents, and the faculty, need to know what is going on, as our struggle reflects on the community as a whole. Columbia spends thousands of dollars researching exploitation and cruel labor practices in third world countries, but they should be looking on their own campus. This issue is close to home, and people can relate to it, so it breaks people’s hearts that a huge giant like this, who is so central to our community, is stealing tips from workers. To put us, the little people, in a situation where we have to file a lawsuit, reflects very badly on the institution as a community entity. Students pay $60,000+ to come here and expect a comprehensive experience that thinks about integrity, compassion, and community –as well as a solid education. Your education should be so well rounded that you have a sense of community when you graduate from here, and what Columbia is doing to its workers has a direct effect on the students.
B: Can you talk about how the process of the lawsuit works?
O: It’s a class action lawsuit, meaning that the burden of proof is on me. We have approximately 35 staff members, who will each receive a letter in the mail seeking their support. The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday, March 27th, and Columbia still needs to respond. It could take years; it depends on how much they drag the process out. Employees are eager and anxious to see this thing resolve. The statute of limitations is 6 years, so we are forced to go back to 2007, but it is unfortunate that we can’t go back farther, because there’s a lot of tips before than that we will be robbed of and that we can never get that back. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been stolen from us.
B: Are you feeling hopeful?
O: Definitely. I am hopeful because at the end of the day, the question that the judge will ask the jury is ‘do you think that clients understood where the service charge was going? Do you believe that Columbia University deceived both clients and workers with this service charge, and have been denying workers money that is rightfully theirs?’
B: How can students help make an impact?
O: Students have been a tremendous help because they have given us a voice: with the school’s radio station and in student publications. Students have rallied with us and stood in solidarity with us.
Most importantly, they have acknowledged our voice and made it valid, because previously no one was listening. So talk about these issues in your community, tell you friends about it, bring it up in class, and support us in our struggle.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.