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Pomp and Protests

Graduation: Striking employees demonstrate at USC, but for most seniors, commencement must go on.

May 09, 1998|PATRICK KERKSTRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Labor protests and mass arrests punctuated the usual pomp and circumstance of USC graduation Friday as 200 striking employees rallied for a new contract and blocked intersections just off campus while graduates inside the university walls happily collected diplomas.

Most of the graduates and their sharply dressed families tried their best to ignore the vocal protesters, hovering news helicopters and police in riot gear. But senior Diana Bennett passed up the official USC ceremony to take part in the protesters' mock graduation, in which demonstrators received "diplomas in justice" before 37 people were peacefully arrested and carted off by police.

"The bottom line is I wouldn't have been comfortable shaking President [Steven] Sample's hand," said Bennett, an international relations major.

Bennett, who is her family's first college graduate, confessed with a laugh that her mother "wasn't very supportive" of her choice. "I would have been proud to be in the USC ceremony; I held down jobs and worked hard to get [the degree]. But I'm pretty proud of the justice degree too."

The demonstration was organized by Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11 on behalf of service and food employees who are seeking greater job security. They have been on strike since April 29.

Among those arrested were Local 11 President Maria Elena Durazo, the Rev. James Dawson, a civil rights activist, and a handful of USC students.

Police said they arrested some of the protesters for failing to disperse after blocking first the intersection of Figueroa Street and Exposition Boulevard, and then the crossing at Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street.

"Graduation is about recognizing you've learned something, that you've developed a social conscience and sense of justice," union spokesman James Elmendorf said. "We're conferring our own degrees, because it's clear USC has no sense of justice."

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Although mention of the protest was carefully avoided in the day's ceremonies, the university later condemned the timing and the substance of the demonstrators' complaints.

"We'd love to have a contract, and USC has been very generous. But the union's insisting on guaranteed employment for life, and no one at USC has that, including the president," said Stephen Berry, USC's chief labor negotiator in the dispute. "But what's tragic is that the union would attempt to disrupt what is the most significant day in the lives of so many students and families."

The traffic jams were bad, but beyond that, the 8,200 graduates and their families seemed unconcerned, or at least undisturbed, by the demonstration.

"You know, it's too good a day to be bothered by this or much of anything," said Michael Raif, clutching a bouquet of daisies for his graduating daughter, Amanda. "Today's not about labor rights. At least for me and Amanda."

Graduating history student Albert Maxwell made a paper airplane out of the flier that protesters handed him. "I'll throw this when it's all over instead of my hat," he said.

Beyond earshot of the demonstration, the 115th USC commencement proceeded with agreeable predictability.

Keynote speaker Bill Cosby needled the graduates, joking that valedictorian Heather Zachary, who graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, is "not the real world" and probably works for the CIA and FBI.

But most of the speakers were a bit more sincere, if predictable, exhorting the students to stretch themselves, care for their communities and remember USC.

"You're only a Bruin for four years," USC President Sample said, getting in the obligatory dig at UCLA, "but you're a Trojan for life."

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