Union stands up to bigotry

As a staunch supporter of the Staff Union at UVA, SUUVA, I would like to comment on its controversial November 21 picket against racism at the university, about which you wrote in your December 4 issue [News: "Mouth watch: N-word sparks UVA outcry"].

On November 10, the hospital's director of patient transportation held a staff meeting and in the course of mentioning the Washington Redskins, referred to a team hypothetically called "the Niggers."

Believing that the allegation of a casual racial slur was credible and serious enough to warrant investigation, SUUVA President Jan Cornell immediately wrote to several high-level administrators, including Leonard Sandridge and Ed Howell, CEO of the hospital. Sandridge wrote back the next day promising to look into it.

Eight days later, on November 19, Howell emailed to confirm the incident but suggested that SUUVA had taken the remark out of context. Is there ever an appropriate context for a racial slur?

 Frustrated at what appeared to be a lackadaisical response from the UVA administration, SUUVA planned its picket for the December 21. On that day and not a moment earlier, Casteen released his own report– not to SUUVA, but to the Cavalier Daily– asserting that the supervisor had actually been objecting to the term "Redskin," likening it to the equally objectionable term "Nigger." Why did it take eleven days for this story to emerge?

Casteen's report nevertheless gave many of us pause. I, for one, would strongly defend remarks made along the lines that he described, and decided not to attend the picket.

Despite disagreement about exactly what occurred and what it meant, one thing is clear. Employees simply do not trust the administration's willingness to address racial issues in the workplace promptly and forthrightly. Staff turn, instead, to SUUVA because they know SUUVA will respond quickly to allegations of racism– alerting the administration and, if no response is forthcoming, taking its concerns to the street.

Make no mistake about it, racism persists at UVA, not least in the continued relegation of African-American workers to the lowest paying jobs. In Patient Transportation, for example, all of the managers are white, while 90 percent of the lower-level staff are black.

Given this, the full recognition of SUUVA by the administration is both crucial and long overdue. SUUVA gives workers the only voice they have to speak out against workplace injustice. Jan Cornell and the organization she heads stand for opposition to bigotry of all kinds and for the right of every university worker to be treated with respect.

Susan Fraiman
Professor of English, UVA