Union backlash will continue until college values all workers

With an impressive number of construction projects on the horizon, Swarthmore College plans to consider both union and non-union contractors on a project-by-project basis. The college will choose between contractors according to their treatment of workers, the quality of their work and their ability to meet budget requirements. Local unionists, however, have noted a stark drop in contracts from the college since the recession of 2008, when the school stopped factoring union wages into their preliminary budget. The margin allotted for wages during the planning process dropped so low that it became nearly inconceivable for unions to meet the college’s budget needs for any given project. Since 2008, the college has tended to hire subcontractors who in turn employ non-unionized workers from out of state at wages far below the local union average.

As far as the college administration is concerned, the wages provided by Paramount Contracting are fair. Stu Hain, vice president for facilities and capital projects, even argued that employees are paid “in a way that represents the skill and commitment they bring to their employer.” The prevailing wage in Delaware County is $36 per hour, with additional benefits worth approximately $24 per hour. In the Phoenix’s September 4 article, he admitted that ours were paid less than unionized workers, who receive the area is prevailing wage and benefits. If the college admits that Paramount Contracting is not paying its employees these wages, then Hain’s comment can only mean one thing: the position of the administration is that the carpenters who build our student facilities do not deserve the prevailing wage. The college can hardly claim financial hardships as justification: the new Matchbox building is the direct result of donations from alumni. Why was it that, upon learning of the astounding generosity of Salem Shuchman ’84, Barbara Klock ’86 and other alumni, the first reaction of the building’s planning committee was, “I bet we can turn a profit if we skimp on wages”?

In that article, Hain argued that a main reason that the college does not want to hire union labor is to “make sure that, where possible, if it is a woman-owned firm or a minority-owned firm, we are able to give preference.” We are curious as to why the hired firm is considered a woman-owned firm or a minority-owned firm; we would be remiss to assume the race or gender of the executives pictured on both Paramount and CVM Construction’s websites so we would like to let the college, with more insight into the matter of diversity, explain. Hain also suggested that, generally, firms that represent the diversity the college community wants tend not to be unionized. In speaking with Jason Rode, a union representative, he provided us with a number of firms represented by his union that are minority- or woman-owned, who would be more than happy to work on building projects at the college.

However, regardless of whether or not the college is hiring firms that are diverse, there is no excuse for the college refusing to pay a living wage to those employees that are subcontracted. If, in fact, Hain’s comments meant that the college wanted to hire a workforce more diverse in gender and racial background, it should be a red flag that the college is happy to pay those workers less than the area standard for the sake of “diversity.” Moreover, the union responding to this mistreatment of workers is not necessarily asking for firms to be represented by a union, but rather is concerned that the firms currently employed by the college are exploitative — they pay substandard wages and provide few to no benefits. According to Rode, the college had a strong relationship with local area unions in the past, but has recently moved away from unions and fair wages altogether.

Irrespective of unionization, employees — direct or otherwise — of the college deserve a fair living wage, which are most often set by local unions. There has been easy dichotomy made between unionized and non-unionized workers throughout the labor dispute at the Matchbox as well as the Town Center West. However, in speaking to union representatives and reading the literature they are providing to the public, we have found thattheir concerns fall squarely on the shoulders of Swarthmore’s decision-makers, who are intentionally avoiding hiring local laborers and employing local firms in addition to paying wages and providing benefits below union standards. This is not authentic work at community-building with the borough of Swarthmore and surrounding townships. And this behavior by the college is not regular practice by other institutions in our area. For example, the University of Pennsylvania agrees to and follows through on hiring local contractors and employing local laborers.

We also think it is important to remember that the construction workers hired to complete the Matchbox not only did not belong to unions or receive union wages, but also that no group on campus has a union presence. In other words, despite its posturing as progressive, Swarthmore College employees have no collective bargaining power. Additionally, there are plenty of other employees on campus who are subcontracted and exploited by their employers, but have not had a union to campaign for them. The college, like any other business, makes a profit off its laborers, and those laborers have no collective power to argue for their rights to better wages or increased benefits.

What students, faculty and staff should keep in mind when considering the issue of outside labor on our campus is that there are many more buildings slated for construction within the framework of the strategic plan. The backlash that the college is experiencing from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners can be expected to continue as the college keeps undermining area wages and benefits in the name of a bottom-line, instead of using its hefty power in the region to work in tandem with the local workforce and build sustainable relationships over time. As members of the Swarthmore Labor Action Project, we want to hold our decision-makers accountable to treating all of the college’s workers with respect and dignity in the form of fair wages and power to collectively bargain without the intimidation paired with a concerned smile we see happening in faculty and staff meetings, as well as the school’s contracting and subcontracting practices.

Leo Rayfiel ’15

Jason Clayton ’16

Nora Kerrich ’16

Eden Barnett ’17

Kim Canzoneri ’17

Aaron True ’17

Sophia Zaia ’18

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