The following editorial is part one of an ongoing series in which the editorial board of The Emory Wheel will discuss the report released on Jan. 2 by the Committee on Class and Labor, which formed after the Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS) protests of 2011.
In the spring of 2011, Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS) protested the alleged mistreatment of workers for Sodexo, Emory’s food-service provider. After days of camping out on the Quadrangle, the administration gave police the order to arrest those students who refused to vacate the premises, citing a long-standing policy prohibiting the unauthorized use of the area for those purposes. Seven were taken to jail.
Following the protests, a Committee on Class and Labor formed to research the issue. After two years the committee finished compiling a report filled with their findings and recommendations.
According to the report, there are 780 employees working for six major contractors – Sodexo, Barnes and Noble, Crestline, Ricoh, First Transit and SP Plus. These contractors operate, respectively, Emory’s food services, the bookstore, Conference Center Hotels, package centers, shuttle services and parking services. While these contractors and their workers do not make up a majority of Emory’s staff, relentless and highly-publicized protests and discussions on campus have brought to light alleged ethical issues regarding these companies.
While we do not fault the University for utilizing such contractors, as it is inevitable for such a large institution, the ethical issues that have been raised about these companies cannot be overlooked: How are contracted workers integrated onto campus and how do we uphold our ethical mission with regard to them? What is our role when a third party has authority over a sector of our community?
We at the Wheel strongly agree with the report that a more transparent process is needed for hiring contractors. Certain specific, ethical principles should be abided by when selecting, evaluating and monitoring contractors.
As of now, multiple offices and liaison officials supervise contractors, but the committee found that these offices do not review labor relations. And although the contractor selection process is guided by criteria that include “Social Responsibility,” the report found that there is no “specific rubric of labor.”
The report recommends that the University establish one centralized entity, as opposed to multiple offices and liaison officials, that is charged with the responsibility of selecting and evaluating these contractors. We agree that this is one step in the correct direction and also urge this entity to create a specific rubric of labor in accordance with the values and ethics put forth by the University.
We recognize that it is federal law, and not the University, which prohibits Emory from interfering with the treatment of contracted workers.
However, we find this dynamic uncomfortable. We feel that this alienates workers from the campus community that they are very much a part of, and relegates them to the overseeing of contractors, as opposed to the University.
Although we trust that the University has its workers’ best interests in mind, we worry that the avenues used to hire contractors are not the best in ensuring fair treatment of all staff. Furthermore we feel that the operating system currently in place limits the University’s ability to pursue ethical action.
Because of federal law, the committees were limited by this regulation and could not directly survey the contracted employees or conduct focus groups. The report states that the researchers were frustrated that they could not verify many of the claims made by the contractors or SWS.
“Without the opportunity formally to meet with or survey the contracted employees, the committee had little means of determining their perspective on their experience at Emory,” the report said. “The university therefore cannot claim that it knows the status of the contracted workers’ experience.”
We understand that a lack of access to information does not necessarily imply that there is something sinister at work or that the committee’s findings would necessarily be negative. However, this finding raises a particular matter of concern. In its public statements, the University has not acknowledged the existence of these impediments previously.
Throughout the development and climax of this issue, not once did the University inform the community that they simply did not know the condition of these contracted employees and that there was no way in which they could address many of the concerns posted by SWS.
Not only must the University openly discuss this legal hurdle, but also it must find ways to circumvent this obstacle so we can effectively evaluate our contractors’ finances and worker satisfaction. The report suggests that the University access the companies’ worker surveys or conduct its own reviews.
Additionally, the report recommends that the University adopt the following criteria for its review process: adequate benefits, fair wages, functioning grievance structures and equalizing the pay between Emory workforce and contracted employees. We support this recommendation and endorse the adoption of these criteria.
Students have raised awareness of the issue, faculty and administrators have researched and offered recommendations and, now, we as a community must hold the University administration responsible for implementing the recommended changes. Given the immense amount of time and effort that the committee has put into its report, the administration should feel an obligation to honor these recommendations.
We applaud the committee members for presenting an unbiased, factually supported and broad view of class and labor on campus. It is clear that they executed their duties with admirable integrity.
The report calls for the creation of another advisory committee. Now is not the time for another committee. Now is the time for action, and we urge the University to act with the utmost efficiency.
The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel‘s editorial board.