Alleging that the college hired workers who are not paid a livable wage, the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters has been protesting the construction of the Matchbox, the college’s four million dollar-plus new fitness, wellness and theater building. The Philadelphia-area union has stationed itself outside of the college’s entrance by the SEPTA station with a sign reading “Shame on Swarthmore” since last June, and argues that the college’s decision to rely partially on non-unionized workers who are not paid the prevailing area wage and benefits is out of sync with its purported commitment to social justice.
“Swarthmore College speaks of fostering social responsibility and cultivating the moral sense of how to live in a community,” said Jason Rhode, a member of the union and a protestor. “I don’t think paying someone substandard wages or benefits reflects those characteristics.”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, the prevailing wage for carpenters in the Delaware county region is approximately $36 per hour while benefits are roughly $24 an hour. The school hired CVM Construction to complete the project, a company that uses a mixture of unionized and non-unionized labor for projects. Thus, while some of the subcontractors it hires pay their workers prevailing area wages and benefits, others, including the carpentry firm Paramount Contracting, do not.
As a private institution, the college is not bound by the Pennsylvania Prevailing Wage Act, which requires that publicly financed projects in excess of $100,000 to pay their construction employees the prevailing wages and benefits. But union representatives argued that even though the college has no legal responsibility to pay prevailing area wages and benefits, it has an ethical obligation to do so.
“I don’t think it’s morally responsible to go the route they did,” said Rhode.
Stuart Hain, vice president for facilities and capital projects, declined to provide the Phoenix with the wages and benefits of the non-unionized workers hired for construction of the Matchbox. But he asserted that the wages and benefits offered to them — while less than that of those in unions — were fair.
“I will not tell you they are paid the same way union workers are, because they are not,” Hain said, adding that the biggest difference was in the size and comprehensiveness of the benefit packages, and not in the actual hourly wage. But, Hain said, “They are, we think, paid in a way that represents the skill and commitment they bring to their employer.”
Both CVM Construction and Paramount Contracting did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Phoenix.
The college also argued that it was using its construction projects to advance social justice in other ways. Gregory Brown, the school’s new vice president for finance and administration, said that the decision to look beyond unionized workers was also an attempt to recruit a more diverse workforce through an economic opportunity program.
“We are also making sure that, where possible, if it is a woman-owned firm or a minority-owned firm, we are able to give preference,” he said, noting that many such firms are not represented by the union. “We want to make sure we have access to all the contractors.”
He added that as part of its projects, the school was also creating a workforce development program aimed at helping train contractors. He said the school believed that such workforce development would help train local firms, particularly those based in Delaware County.
Rhodes was not convinced, and was particularly critical of the college’s decision to hire Paramount contracting.
“Paramount is not from the local area — they’re from Lancaster,” he said. “They don’t hire local employees, and they pay them substandard wages and give them very little if any benefits at all.”
He noted that the school’s decision to use a mixture of union and non-union contracting on a major project was a departure from what the school had done in the past.
“On these bigger jobs, they hired contractors who paid the prevailing rate to their employees,” he said.
Hain and Brown acknowledged that this was a change from the previous sizable projects, but listed several reasons for the departure from past practices. In particular, Hain said, the school wanted to avoid having to adhere to the union’s work rules, which would have made the construction more complicated and expensive.
“The trickiest issue would have probably been around installation of the skin on the top of the building,” he said, referring to the red cement panels on the Matchbox’s rooftop. If the school had hired unionized workers, he said, there would have been a struggle about how many different trades would have to be involved in that process.
Now, the various tasks necessary to install the panels can be done with one group, as opposed to several.
“There is more flexibility,” Hain said.
The college is not the only institution that has run into trouble with the carpenters’ council when it comes to work rules. The Philadelphia Convention Center is currently engaged in an ongoing battle with the union over who can do what work on its premises. The carpenters’ union, along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, refused to sign a revised Customer Satisfaction Agreement which, while raising union worker salaries, granted exhibitors the leeway to set up their booths themselves, so long as they are smaller than 600 feet, use full-time employees (who need not be unionized), and refrain from use of complicated power tools.
The other four unions that work at the Convention Center all signed the agreement, which many believe has been instrumental in bringing back business to the center, which was previously struggling.
But since last May, the carpenters have been protesting outside its premises.
Brown said that, while not the same, the problems the Convention Center faced were similar to the ones the school was trying to avoid.
“They’re parallel issues,” he said.
The school also said that the savings it was incurring from avoiding the carpenters’ work rules and the higher wages and benefits were enough to justify its decision, particularly in light of the many upcoming construction projects, which include a new residence hall and a biology, engineering and psychology building.
“If you think about how big these next several projects are, it really is a question of making sure we can make the financial resources cover what we need to do,” said Brown. “We need to make sure we’ve got the flexibility so that the financial resources can go to actually educating the students.”
But Rhode rejected the notion that the financial costs would be too high for the college.
“I don’t think Swarthmore College is hurting for money,” he said.
He also suggested that whatever costs the school might incur would be worth it in light of the social capital they lose by hiring non-union workers.
“They want to be respected in the community,” Rhode said.
Beyond construction, wages have become an increasingly salient issue at the college. The Swarthmore Labor Action Project is engaged in an ongoing campaign for higher pay for many members of the college’s staff, most notably Sharples workers. In 2013, the group estimated that a living wage would be approximately $14.03 per hour.
Kim Canzoneri ’17, a member of SLAP, said that the school’s points about financial savings tie into a larger debate on campus about whether the school ought to spend a higher portion of the return it gets on its endowment now instead of investing it for the future. She found herself on the side of those who say the school ought to spend more now.
“We need to spend more of that endowment and not pretend that we don’t have enough money to pay an extra few dollars to these workers without taking away a bunch of money from the students,” she said.
Still, it looks as if there is little prospect that the school will change its mind, at least for now.
“We have a lot of construction coming up,” said Brown. “And we need to make sure the dollars get done what we need the dollars to get done.”