Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
As the October 2010 Board of Managers meeting came to a close, President Chopp reaffirmed Swarthmore College’s “deep commitment to the Quaker heritage and values that have defined our mission and traditions,” in her written invitation to participate in the strategic planning process. Among these central values are social responsibility and “advancing the common good,” ideals that all members of our community have undoubtedly heard reverberating throughout this institution.
After a brief lull during the recent recession, our college is moving forward with plans to lease its land to a private developer who will build a hotel, restaurant, bar, retail space—including space for the college bookstore—and 80 apartments on the fields between the train station and Palmer Residence Hall. The main rationale for this project over the past fourteen years has been economic revitalization for the Borough of Swarthmore and job creation.
Though this development project will be on college-owned land, the people working in the hotel will be employed by an outside operating company—not our college. While the quantity of these new jobs is not yet certain, Swarthmore College can act now to ensure that their quality is, by putting strong protections in place before they sign a deal and allow developers to build.
While creating new jobs is a good idea, especially with high unemployment rates, the hotel industry is notorious for unjust labor practices. According to the United States Department of Labor’s 2010-2011 Career Guide to Industries, work in hotels is “demanding and hectic,” but earnings “generally are much lower than the average for all industries.” The hotel industry has a disturbing record of exploiting and abusing workers with poverty wages, especially in this economic recession.
This development project, then, presents the leaders of Swarthmore College with a clear choice: act now and live up to our Quaker values of social responsibility or abandon our mission of “advancing the common good” by allowing a private developer and operator to put profits before the lives of hardworking people. From construction to daily operation, people working to build, clean, and run this hotel deserve dignified wages, solid healthcare benefits and a fair workplace where they are respected.
Labor law sets the ground rules for how workers and management can fight: workers have the right to strike and demonstrate while management can intimidate, harass, and go after workers to prevent them from organizing. Often, these fights get ugly.
One way for Swarthmore College to uphold its values is to ensure that the hotel workers are protected by a neutrality agreement.
A neutrality agreement is a legal document in which both sides—the union and the management—agree not to fight. Both sides voluntarily put aside the aggressive tactics they have a legal right to use, giving workers the freedom to make their own decision, and both sides agree to respect whatever that decision is. If workers do not want a union, the union walks away. If the workers do want a union, the management agrees to recognize it. A neutrality agreement helps ensure a fair workplace and a level-playing field for workers if they choose to speak up about on-the-job abuses or exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively.
Some members of our community may claim that it is too early to ensure a fair workplace, but construction for the project is expected to begin within the next year. The likely developers and operators are currently estimating the potential costs of this project, which will include wages and healthcare benefits. Furthermore, it is increasingly standard to implement neutrality agreements before the land is even developed for hotels in both urban and suburban areas. For example, neutrality agreements are already in place for seven hotels in the Philadelphia area, all of which have been planned within the past three years.
President Chopp has quoted 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt in describing Swarthmore’s commitment to “setting the world anew and aright.” There is no doubt that with skyrocketing unemployment rates and debilitating poverty, Swarthmore’s neighboring communities are in peril. We hope that President Chopp and the Board of Managers see the Town Center West Development project as more than a mere opportunity for economic development but rather a means of potentially providing fairly compensated, dignified jobs. We hope that they will put Swarthmore’s values into action and set things anew and aright here in our community by taking a first, no-cost step and agreeing to these principles of fairness at the December 2010 Board of Managers meeting.
_ Adam Bortner ’12 and Rachel Giovanniello ‘14 are members of the Swarthmore Labor Action Project._