This summer, in a stunning display of putting profit over people, Brown decided to outsource University Mail Services to the multinational corporation RICOH. On June 19, a few hours after mailroom workers received their would-be annual raises, Beth Gentry, assistant vice president of business and financial services, called workers back into her office to tell them that they would lose their jobs at Brown on July 31, when the new company would take over. In the meantime, workers would train their replacements from RICOH.
Three of the nine mailroom workers who lost their jobs at Brown had worked here for over 20 years, four more for over 10, workers said. They were experts in how the mailroom functioned. They had developed friendly relationships with students and staff, often going way beyond the job description to help students with unwieldy packages. But at the end of the day, they depended on those jobs for their families, for their healthcare, for stability in their own communities beyond Brown.
After all, as the second largest employer in the city of Providence—and as a perpetually expanding entity that does not pay property taxes—Brown can improve its impact on the city simply by providing stable jobs with good wages and benefits, by not treating workers as if they were disposable.
Yet Brown disposed of this dedicated workforce.
The justification to workers for outsourcing to the new company, RICOH, was its supposed efficiency, as reported in the June 25th Brown Daily Herald article “U. signs controversial agreement to outsource mail operations.” A few months earlier, Brown invited RICOH consultants to observe the mailroom. They found that the mailroom at Brown was inefficient, and that outsourcing to their own company was the solution. This glaring conflict of interest would have been laughable had Brown not agreed to their offer and laid off the workers, who had already been requesting the equipment that would have increased their efficiency.
Perhaps Beth Gentry and Beppie Huidekoper had hoped that the workers would accept their decision as “the-way-the-world-works” and meekly move on. But the workers did not go quietly into the night. They fought back, mobilizing students, alumni, staff and community members. A petition asking the administrators to maintain the structure and staff of the mailroom began circulating on June 21, gathering 1000 signatures by June 25. Soon after, concerned students met with administrators to discuss their opposition. When administrators dismissed them, workers held a rally against the outsourcing in mid-July. Yet the administrators remained committed to RICOH, and Brown ultimately outsourced the mailroom.
While some workers chose to apply for a job with RICOH, only two were accepted, and two other former workers were rejected for being “unqualified” for the position. Moreover, workers who lost their jobs and agreed to a so-called “generous” severance package had to sign an agreement that they would not “speak negatively of the Assistant Vice President of the Department, employees of the Department, or of the University…” or presumably they would risk losing their severance package, which comes on a weekly basis. This agreement implies that workers do indeed have reason to “speak negatively,” and Brown knows it.
For a University that prides itself on championing freedom of speech, this is a shameful act: Brown bought the silence of former workers about the injustice it committed.
Meanwhile the results of outsourcing to RICOH have spoken for themselves. Important packages have been lost, students have not received medication in a timely fashion, departmental mail has been lost, and lines for picking up packages can be extremely long. This is not a statement in opposition to the new mailroom employees, but rather Brown’s decision to outsource to RICOH, and without transparency or accountability to workers or students. We are working with the Brown University Community Council on a proposal that would build transparency and accountability into the process of making outsourcing decisions so that any plan to do so would first be submitted to the BUCC for review and recommendation. We look forward to the successful development and implementation of this policy. We urge you to look at our letter to the BUCC, comment, and sign in support of it on our Facebook page.
In the here and now, however, Brown’s decision to invite an analyst from RICOH to come this Wednesday–a fact brought to our attention by the mailroom drivers’ union–is alarming and déjà vu-inciting. The analysts will assess the two mailroom drivers, positions not previously outsourced to RICOH. Will the analyst again find inefficiencies and promise that RICOH will solve them? Once again, this obvious conflict of interest would be humorous if workers’ jobs were not on the line. Given that RICOH has failed to improve services in the mailroom, inviting the company back to possibly expand its services seems ill-conceived.
We join the two drivers of the mailroom, who are currently Brown employees, as we ask that President Paxson, Beppie Huidekoper, and Beth Gentry publicly commit not to outsource these jobs to RICOH, maintaining them as Brown employees. We ask that they disinvite the analyst, since the analyst has a material interest in RICOH’s expansion, and will produce a report to that end.
We ask readers to stand in solidarity with the mailroom drivers against the corporatization of our university. This time, we will make sure that Brown is both accountable to workers and transparent in its decision-making. This time, we will not let Brown dispose of campus workers in the name of efficiency.