From the Plant to the Plaza: Hershey Students Visit Occupy Wall Street

From the Plant to the Plaza Hershey Students Visit Occupy Wall Street

At a reception co-hosted by SEIU, Jobs With Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance, international students working in a Hershey packing plant in Pennsylvania shared stories of their struggle for Good Jobs Now, August 26, 2011. (Photo: David Sachs / SEIU)

The foreign students who went out on strike at a candy warehouse in Hershey, Pennsylvania, this summer joined Occupy Wall Street Wednesday and declared their solidarity with the efforts of the protesters encamped in Manhattan's financial district. “I want to learn about what's going on here so that I can bring it back to Romania,” said Ionut-Decebal Bilan (John), 22 years old, one of the students who brought attention to cruel labor practices this summer.

The students had come from all over the world to participate in a cultural exchange program set up by the State Department, but found themselves working long night shifts and completing strenuous labor that left them bruised and aching, under camera surveillance and threats of deportation from management if they failed to keep up production pace. By way of remuneration, many were not earning enough to make up the cost of the J-1 visas they had obtained in order to receive cultural enrichment and an education about life in America that was unavailable to them.

Well, unavailable in a sense. The students were not afforded the opportunity to take in America as advertised, but they were certainly treated to an America that many workers know – exploitation, struggle, privation, extortion and voicelessness. The students were only a few of the victims of a system by which corporations – whose solitary social responsibility is to increase their profits – collaborate with the government officials they buy off to create ever-more open avenues for the endless accumulation of wealth on the backs of labor.

An Associated Press investigation published in December 2010 uncovered just this type of darkness in the J-1 visa program. Students, according to the report, were sometimes taking home less than one dollar an hour, some eating on floors. Promoted as fostering cultural understanding, the J-1 program is more frequently used to provide cheap labor to firms whose commitment is not cultural at all, but to furnishing their owners with wealth.

Who is to blame for this depravity? Hershey washed its hands, noting that the plant in question wasn't under its direct purview, but that of its vendor, Exel. Exel washed its hands, pointing out that it was SHS Staffing Solutions of Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, that had placed the students there. SHS washed its hands, claiming it was just the middle man between State and business. And so forth, which is exactly the point. A whole system is at work whose two chief results are the misery of those at the bottom and plausible deniability for the beneficiaries of their suffering. It is difficult for one to imagine an arrangement much more horrible than that.

The students find hope of altering that system in the protests underway at Liberty Plaza Park and all across the country. “The problem is the corporations,” remarked Roman Surzhko, 21, of Ukraine. “There are rich people who have all the money. It's community versus corporations. You call yourself the 99%. We feel like the 99%. We have the same problems.”

The Hershey students found an ally in labor unions during their struggle this summer, and the Occupy Wall Street protesters have done the same. The health care workers' union 1199/SEIU announced Tuesday that it would send a brigade of RNs to the park to administer free flu shots to any protesters who want them, since the occupiers plan to be camped outside through the rapidly approaching cold season.

The Hershey strike was not a one-off for these students. “You find your purpose,” said John. “This was the match in my life. I really want to continue this kind of work.”