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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

USC Employee Abigail Lopez On Confrontation With President Nikias

Sarah Collins |
February 5, 2015 | 9:37 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Abigail Lopez at work serving food at Lemonade. (Sarah Collins/Neon Tommy)
Abigail Lopez at work serving food at Lemonade. (Sarah Collins/Neon Tommy)
After working a full day’s shift on just under $11 an hour and enduring a commute with supersaturated traffic, single-mother Abigail Lopez sat with her three kids around the living room, chatting over a turned-down television set and the chirping Metro line that passes by their backyard. The family’s three dogs and two cats took turns sniffing and snuggling with them as they shared their story.

For months, workers at the University of Southern California have been negotiating for higher wages at $15 an hour and guaranteed full-time hours every week. With a deal yet to be made between their labor union and the school, stakes have been raised, as employees have begun to publicly protest the gridlock. 

Last week, a worker at USC’s Lemonade restaurant was thrust into the spotlight for speaking out to the university's president, C.L. Max Nikias. In an organized confrontation led by a student group, she pleaded with Nikias to raise workers’ wages. A video that captured the event pans from her choked up tears to the president’s uncomfortable chuckles. It has since garnered nearly 8,000 views

The woman in the video is Lopez, who said Wednesday that she hadn't originally intended to confront the president. 

“I think what got me going was he said [regarding the workers], ‘They’re fine; they’re fine,’ and he smiled… I want [President Nikias] to see that the students may think we’re fine, but we’re not fine,” she said.

While Lopez said she has received praise from both students and other workers for standing up, she added that it has little impact on both her living conditions and those of the thousands of other workers trying to get by. 

READ MORE: Worker Delivers Tearful Plea To USC President To Increase Poverty-Level Wages

“I never see my mom because she’s always working. She’s gone before I wake up,” said Victoria Cabot, her elder daughter. “She’s chipping away at herself and just to have nothing to barely be able to survive, and it shouldn’t be that way.”

Lopez and her children Victor, Victoria, and Jasmine (Sarah Collins/Neon Tommy)
Lopez and her children Victor, Victoria, and Jasmine (Sarah Collins/Neon Tommy)

Victor Cabot, Lopez’s 22-year-old son, knows all too well of his mother's hardships. Cabot worked at another popular USC eaterie, The Lab Gastropub, for six months before leaving due to what he referred to as “a hostile work environment." 

“Why should she have to work a whole 10-hour day at a certain wage and then not have time for family and be slaving away at somewhere that doesn’t give her a decent amount of wage?” he said. 

Cabot’s argument mirrors President Obama’s, who called for a national rise in the minimum wage in his State of the Union address this year, as well as that of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who launched the #RaiseTheWageLA campaign on Labor Day last year. 

SEE ALSO: USC Workers Rally For Higher Wages

On a schoolwide level, groups like USC’s Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (S.C.A.L.E.) have been vocal to the workers' cause, joining in on protests, while others have individually spoken out.

One student reporter wrote an open letter to the university’s president on Neon Tommy and the Daily Trojan. “I think if you took a stand in favor of paying your employees a living wage, you would find overwhelming amount of support for your decision,” wrote Matthew Tinoco. 

The family's home in San Gabriel. (Sarah Collins/Neon Tommy)
The family's home in San Gabriel. (Sarah Collins/Neon Tommy)

“They come in here, they put on a smile, and they make it the best experience possible for us,” said Sarah Newell, a senior member of S.C.A.L.E. “But in their personal lives, there’s a lot of turmoil because of the low wages and hour policies dictated by USC.”

In a statement to Neon Tommy earlier this week, the university said it is working closely with the Local 11 union and is confident that both parties will reach an agreement. 

“We are proud that we have continued to grow the number of job opportunities for Local 11 employees in the past five years,” Thomas Sayles, Senior Vice President for University Relations, said in the statement. “We are also proud of the length of service of many of our Local 11 employees, including those who have children who have taken advantage of free tuition and earned degrees here.”  

Lopez hopes the increased attention to the issue will bring about change. She plans to continue working at USC, as both her daughters have dreams of attending the university. This does not, however, mean that they're unconscious of the toll their mother’s job has taken.

“I want to go to USC,” said Jasmine Melendez, Lopez’s younger daughter. “But... I wouldn’t want to be somewhere that kind of added on to our struggles.” 

Reach Staff Reporter Sarah Collins here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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