The Soul of the University: When Outsourcing Hits Home

National Labor Relations Board officials count votes at Northeastern University
April 12, 2012
Author’s Photo

There is by now a sprawling literature on the spread of precarious employment. Arne Kalleberg’s important new book on this topic, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs, is a case in point. Guy Standing’s book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, is another. A few years ago, the harsher side of this phenomenon was documented by Annette Bernhardt and her colleagues, in The Gloves Off Economy on the growing willingness of employers to violate even the basics of employment law.

But we academics often seem to assume that bad jobs exist largely outside our own institutions. So it’s worth asking: How are the terms and conditions of employment changing at our home institutions? How are the workers who support our universities faring in the current economy? What is work like for employees performing functions that have been outsourced by our universities? And what opportunities exist that might help workers reshape the terms and conditions of employment they currently face? In other words, what do we do when outsourcing hits home?

Let me use my home university as a platform for some observations. Like many universities, Northeastern has outsourced many of its support functions. Custodial jobs and food service work are perhaps the most prominent examples.  Thus, my university’s dining hall workers–- 400 strong —- are now employed by one of the largest food service companies in the world: Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group USA, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina.

An obscure fact? Perhaps. Bu then, last year, several students I know –-selfless kids kids who had been helping the workers with their English —began to hear some pretty nasty stories about the working conditions in the dining halls. These involved not only low pay, few benefits, and arbitrary work schedules, but harsh and abusive treatment as well –in short, what one might call “management by intimidation.” There were also highly credible allegations of sexual harassment as well.

These conditions remind me of what Michael Burawoy once called “market despotism” –- a regime in which market conditions leave workers vulnerable to highly coercive forms of treatment. Ordinarily, workers in such a position have few resources at their disposal, especially when (as in this case) they are divided by race, ethnicity, national identity, and language.  For whatever reason, though, the workers in our dining hall began to act in highly courageous ways. Aided by progressive students and UNITE HERE Local 26, the workers formed an organizing committee that rapidly gained momentum. At meetings I attended, I saw dozens of workers speak out in defense of their own dignity, demanding more than insults and abusive treatment as a steady diet at work. They were willing to take risks, and a vibrant union campaign took root.

For a time, the risks seemed formidable. This was nowhere more true than when our university reportedly engaged the services of an anti-union law firm to “help” respond to the organizing campaign. Then Chartwells began to hold “captive audience” meetings, and to exert pressure on individual workers who supported the union.  One source shared with me a long list of alleged unfair labor practices committed by the company. It all looked fairly nasty.

But a series of things occurred that I believe made all the difference in the world. Students began to hold speak outs, in solidarity with the workers. University faculty (myself among them) wrote two impassioned letters to the central administration, insisting that they direct their subcontractor to change its practices. We drafted an op-ed for the Boston Globe. It looked like a very public struggle was about to happen on Huntington Avenue, right in the middle of Boston.

All this mobilization began to make a difference. In a manner that will be familiar to activists in the anti-sweatshop movement, workers, students, and faculty were able to threaten our university’s “brand” –- a serious threat, especially during the height of admissions season. Perhaps fearing all the negative publicity, our administration seemed to change its posture, and directed Chartwells to back off. Suddenly, notices about mandatory “captive audience” meetings were taken down. Three on one meetings with union supporters stopped happening.  Chartwells backed off, and let the election unfold without the ‘slash and burn’ tactics they had started to use. The university issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to the dignity of all members of the academic community, including the workers of its subcontractors. The union campaign gained momentum, and overwhelmed management’s capacity to control. We kept the op-ed on ice.

I’ll report the results of the NLRB election (held April 12) in a moment. First I want to make a few observations that may hold significance for all students of work organizations living in the university world. First is the question of the ethical obligations of our own universities. Much as Apple learned after the scandal at its Foxconn supplier, it is no longer possible for organizations to outsource their ethical obligations. The “client” can outsource the work to subcontractors, but the ethical obligations are stickier than that. This is a point that some universities have been too slow to learn, it seems. Students and workers must sometimes educate the educators, reminding university administrators that they will be held to account for working conditions up and down their supply chain.

A second point is that these issues are likely to gain greater currency in the coming months, as UNITE HERE and SEIU gain momentum in service industries up and down the east coast. There have been successful organizing drives recently among the dining hall workers at Harvard and Brandeis, for example; at Georgetown; and now, at the University of Virginia and at the U of Miami as well. Calls for solidarity linking students and faculty with groups of support workers are likely to grow more frequent. This is sure to provide us not only with data, but with ethical challenges as well. Social scientific objectivity is a fine thing, but it loses much of its appeal when  unsavory things are done in the shadows of our own institutions.

A final point: Our universities often have codes of conduct that use lofty language to govern “all members of the academic community.” How are the boundaries of this community drawn? Does the ethical imperative to respect the dignity and rights of the academic community extend to the workers who feed our students, clean our offices, and patrol our buildings? Are they full citizens of our academic communities? Sure, codes of conduct at our institutions may have little legal standing. But in concert with the “brand anxiety” administrators often feel, codes of conduct can provide an important lever with which to defend the dignity of even highly vulnerable groups.

I promised to report the results of yesterday’s NLRB certification election. The photograph shows the scene, with NLRB  officials doing the count. In the room was a rapt audience of over a hundred workers, students, and faculty, awaiting the final count. There were 394 workers eligible to vote, and 343 valid ballots were cast (evidence of active engagement by members of the bargaining unit). 299 workers (or 87 per cent) voted to have UNITE HERE Local 26 represent them. Only 44 workers (12.8 per cent) voted against union representation. When the results were announced, the room was filled with joy, hugs and cheers. It was a landslide victory, 299-44: a mandate for worker dignity, providing an important lesson of a sort that was not confined to a reading assignment.


–SPV, in solidarity

  1. erinlkelly said:

    Terrific story and terrific results! I especially like the point about the boundaries of our community and who is recognized here. I noticed the comment on social scientific objectivity and it raised questions, for me, about our role as sociologists as well as faculty or student allies. I think we have a role, as social scientists, to place the struggles and problems that workers face in a given organization in a broader context and that likely lends support and credibility to the subcontracted workers. Thanks for sharing.

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