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The School of Subcontracting

Universities use subcontracting to distance themselves from their low-wage employees' needs.

Parker Knight / Flickr

The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decision to classify graduate student teachers and researchers as employees in addition to students — granting them the right to employee protections and unionization — is the most recent in a string of developments focusing the Left’s attention on colleges and universities. From unionized faculty being locked out of their classrooms, to a professor on hunger strike after having his tenure unilaterally vetoed by the university president, to the rise of undergraduate movements parallel with Black Lives Matter, the university remains an important arena for class struggle.

But often overlooked in this struggle is low-wage university labor, including janitorial, dining hall, and security staff. While all members of university life have been affected by the neoliberalization of academia, it is often these workers who have been dealt the harshest hand. University administrations have pursued cost-cutting measures like subcontracting and slashing wages and benefits with gusto.

Facing a rising tide of unionization and collective action, universities are also resorting to blatant efforts to push unions out. This is what was attempted this summer at Johns Hopkins University. In the north of Baltimore, Hopkins is one of Maryland’s largest employers and considers itself an important “anchor institution” in the city.

Hopkins president Ron Daniels — popular with the Board of Trustees for his continued push for higher university rankings and lower costs — loudly and frequently claims “So goes Baltimore, so goes Hopkins.” But Daniels’s efforts to “save” the city often run counter to the needs of working people in Baltimore. This was made starkly apparent in recent months, when Daniel’s administration tried to cut ties with the local security guards’ union.

Pushing Out a Union

Two years ago, the employees of Allied Universal — a security guard firm that is contracted by Johns Hopkins University — unionized with the SEIU local 32BJ. After unionizing, the workers — specifically the security guards patrolling Hopkins’s Baltimore campus — won health benefits for the first time. Joining in the SEIU’s national push, the local has since been struggling for an increase in wages (which are currently below the costs of living) and the provision of additional benefits. The newly won health-care coverage, a big victory, was set to begin in January 2017.
But this summer, Johns Hopkins decided to open the contract for campus security to companies other than Allied Universal — many of which are not unionized. According to union representatives, the contract process was tailored away from Allied Universal and towards a different, nonunion company with close ties to Hopkins called Broadway Services.

Suddenly, the security guards were not only looking at losing their newly won benefits and possibly their union — they were facing the prospect of losing their jobs. The official administrative line from Hopkins is that the move represented a “performance review,” but many saw it as a thinly veiled attempt to remove a union whose gains were beginning to cut into the university’s bottom line.

The union quickly responded in a push to keep the contract — and the union — intact. Representatives reached out to two Hopkins student organizations that had been involved in on-campus activism during previous years: the Black Student Union (BSU) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Over the past two years, student organizers led the struggle against injustice at Hopkins. This struggle paralleled the rise of Black Lives Matter nationally, and we were intimately involved in student organizing during the “Baltimore Uprising.” Our organizing reached a peak last fall when over two hundred student protesters surrounded President Daniels on a quad during a promotional video screening, demanding that the administration respond to structural racism and inequality on campus. Because of ongoing struggles over these and other issues the union saw the student organizations as potential allies with experience combatting a hostile administration.

To assist the security guards, SDS and BSU organized a petition among the undergraduate students, which received nearly six hundred signatures (not bad for the middle of the summer, when the university is largely empty of students), published a critical op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, and coordinated with SEIU organizers — who had already been canvassing in and around Hopkins.

These efforts convinced the administration to postpone the decision, and to push back through a media campaign to quell rising criticism. Hopkins administrators published their own op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, and the Hopkins media relations office issued a statement:

Union status was not a factor in the decision to initiate this contract review. While union representation is not a requirement of the contract, contractors with unionized employees are welcome to bid and a number of those invited to bid, including Allied Universal . . . are in fact unionized.

Even if the opening of this contract had nothing to do with the unionization of the employees, the university’s refusal to commit to contracting with a unionized company underscores the real threat that collective bargaining poses to the neoliberal university. This threat, while grounded in a desire for enhanced profitability, is not predicated solely on the material costs that unions pose to universities’ profit margins. Unionization poses an existential threat to the continued neoliberalization of academia — one that universities fear indulging, no matter how small the monetary cost.

Who’s the Boss?

The contemporary wave of marketization gripping the world economy, promoted by the political project of neoliberalism, has seen an all-out assault on academia and intellectualism. Although the rising power of university administrators and the shift of academia into the corporate realm can be traced back to the 1970s, the greatest changes have occurred after the 2008 financial crisis, which hit universities as hard as it hit other Western enterprises. High tuition, low wages, and the quelling of campus activism are staples of growing austerity at universities. But just as important is universities’ growing reliance on subcontracted labor to keep the institutions running.

Labor subcontracting is a standard practice in the global push for flexible labor — workers that are less expensive for capital because of low skills and high demand for jobs, temporary or seasonal contracts, informal hiring practices, the replacement of full-time work with part-time work, and subcontracting. While these practices can be found in nearly every industry, they are also prominent at universities.

Subcontracting — whereby companies push the responsibilities of being an employer onto other companies instead of hiring labor themselves — allows institutions to circumvent labor laws and pay lower wages. A report on subcontracting in the University of California system shows that subcontracted employees earn as much as 53 percent less than employees hired by the UC system directly — and often the subcontracted employees have no benefits and fewer job protections.

In this respect the situation of security workers at Johns Hopkins is fairly typical. By contracting with Allied Universal, Hopkins is able to absolve its responsibility for the treatment of workers who fulfill essential university functions, and even remove an entire unionized labor force from its ranks at will.

The difference in bargaining power between employees hired by Hopkins directly and those hired through a subcontractor is made clear by the experience of other low-wage employees at the university. Approximately two thousand employees of the Johns Hopkins Hospital System are also organized by SEIU. In 2014, these workers pushed for a wage increase (aiming for $15 an hour) and won a small, but significant victory. The policy — agreed to by the union and Hopkins — was that “Hopkins will set a $15 hourly wage for employees with 20 years under their belts and a $14 hourly wage for workers with 15 years of experience. All current employees will earn at least $13 an hour by 2018. And the minimum wage for first-year employees will increase annually to $12.60 in 2018.”

These hospital workers are directly employed by Johns Hopkins and so were able to direct their demands for better wages to the university itself — the physical place where they worked, not a different, middle-man company. Allied Universal guards don’t share this relationship. Whatever polices that Hopkins has implemented for its own employees do not apply to them.

Repeating History

This is not the first time that Johns Hopkins’s relationship with subcontracted workers has been a point of contention — nor is it the first time that a coalition of students and labor propelled the movement. In fact, it’s not even the first time Broadway Services has been involved. In the late 1990s, a group of (largely graduate) students formed an organization called Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) with David Harvey — who at the time was a geography professor at Hopkins — as their adviser. SLAC began to collect information from workers throughout the university and hospital systems and began to piece together the hardships that low-wage workers at Johns Hopkins were facing.

At the time, Hopkins was beginning to phase in subcontracting as an alternative to hiring employees outright. SLAC discovered that the company being hired to provide these subcontracted workers — Broadway Services — was owned by the Dome Corporation, a company created by and for Johns Hopkins University. Basically, in order to institute subcontracting Hopkins created a shell company with which it could then enter a contract. Straight out of an absurd dystopia, the building that served as Broadway’s headquarters was less than a block away from the Hopkins medical campus.

SLAC leaders argued that this demonstrated that Hopkins was, in fact, the employer of these workers and, in concert with the ongoing national fight for a living wage, began planning actions.

Teaming up with the SEIU, the All Peoples Congress, Unity for Action, the Center for Poverty Solutions, ACORN, Students Against Sweatshops, the Black Student Union, and other local community organizations, SLAC orchestrated several pro-worker actions against the university administration. These included dropping banners during speeches, organizing thousands of signatures on petitions, building a “shanty town” with “Hopkins Creates Poverty” signs on a quad, and hosting rallies across the campus.

The climax came three years later in March 2000, when SLAC organizers and hundreds of supporters stormed the administrative office building and eight activists locked their necks together and to the building doors. The sit-in lasted over one hundred hours and received support in the form of food and supplies from local businesses. Notable academics and activists such as David Harvey, Howard Zinn, and Beverly Silver all came out to show support. Noam Chomsky even called the students to offer praise and solidarity.

The university eventually capitulated and agreed to raise wages for all low-wage workers — both employees of the university and employees of subcontractors — at Hopkins. I spoke with some of the activists involved in this action, who claim that this was the first victory at a private institution in the living-wage campaign. It was a powerful victory — but one that did not have long-lasting effects. Wages are still low and workers are still voiceless — and the institutional memory of activists at universities like Hopkins is devastatingly short.

Building a Movement

Academia is transient. It’s difficult to build directly on the work of those who came before us. The living wage struggle led by SLAC activists eventually subsided and those involved moved through the university and dispersed around the world. The current struggle at Hopkins has barely begun — the guards have only been unionized for two years and a coalition of students and labor has only recently been formed.

But noteworthy achievements have still been accomplished. In the face of public pressure, Hopkins announced earlier this month that it would renew its contract with Allied Universal — despite the tailored bidding towards Broadway. This was a victory for the unionized workers and for the student organizations that pushed the university. When it was solely the unionized subcontracted workers — and the company, Allied Universal — pushing to renew the contract, union and university insiders largely believed (or were resigned to the fact) that Hopkins would ignore the calls and hire Broadway Services. However, once students got involved, Hopkins postponed its decision — and eventually capitulated to the demands. While on a smaller scale than earlier actions at the university, parallels can be drawn; by working together, two groups of “stakeholders” in university life were able to achieve success.

Low-wage workers, along with graduate students, adjuncts, faculty, and undergraduates, face uphill battles with their administrations in the fight against the ongoing capitalist transformation of the university. Demands from past and current struggles are constantly unmet. But if we stand together, learn from those who struggled before us, and understand that our struggles are linked, we will be more successful than we could ever be alone.