During the week of October 27th, the Student Labor Alliance (SLA) coordinated a teach-in in response to Brown’s decision to quickly and quietly fire eleven mailroom workers in favor of subcontracting their positions this past summer. The teach-in also sought to give context to the ongoing library contract negotiations. Brown’s own Mail Services driver Jesus Sanchez and library worker Mark Baumer spoke about their experiences with administrators and work in the University. Harol López and Phoebe Gardner from Fuerza Laboral, a Central Falls labor group, and Gladys Gould and John Burns, from Rhode Island’s branch of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), joined them.
The University has a history of disrespectful and unfair treatment toward its workers. In 2006, the Bookstore Review Committee strongly recommended outsourcing the Brown Bookstore, which took two months of relentless agitation by the community to prevent. In 2010, Brown laid off more than twelve workers from the library and subcontracted custodial services for six of its off-campus locations. Yet these injustices are often forgotten due to student turnover and the University’s active silencing of workers. The fired Mail Services workers’ severance contracts included a clause that ensured they would not “speak negatively of the Assistant Vice President of the Department, employees of the Department, or of the University” at risk of losing their severance, which comes in monthly installations.
Jesus Sanchez, one of the two unionized drivers that were not fired, laid out a timeline of changes in Mail Services over the past few months. During the spring, he explained, a student survey was released at the prompting of Mail Services, who believed they could expedite processes if the administration could be persuaded to buy two more computers and additional shelving. Instead, Brown took the student survey as an opportunity to hire Ricoh, an international office technology company, and the United Parcel Review to conduct an external review of the mailroom’s “efficiency.” In a glaringly obvious conflict of interest, Ricoh reported that the mailroom was not functioning at maximum efficiently and that Ricoh could provide the necessary tools to do so.
On June 29, only a few hours after receiving their yearly raises, eleven Mail Services workers were given notice that they would be let go at the end of July. Sanchez recalled a later meeting with administrators, who implied that the threat of the workers unionizing was one of the factors when deciding to switch over to Ricoh. “[The administrators] made it seem like it was a union issue, saying, ‘We couldn’t let everyone go union,” he said.
Now, two months into the semester, students and faculty still face long lines and lost packages with Ricoh’s new, “more efficient” system. Several departments have complained to Sanchez that they are not getting their mail and that no one is answering their calls. “They lost all the knowledge in the mailroom. They got rid of all the people that were the most experienced,” said Sanchez. He also described meeting with two administrators, who dismissed his concerns. Sanchez remembers them saying, “Nothing’s changed, Mail Services is still Mail Services…We don’t have to answer to anyone about the decisions we make at Brown.”
AFSCME’s John Burns described subcontracting as a “race to the bottom.” In an effort to underbid their competitors, subcontracting companies make major cuts in their employees’ wages and benefits, as the private firm GCH did to the subcontracted custodial services workers in Central Falls’ schools. “[The subcontracting companies] want people to work for nothing… They get appalled when you make proposals with a decent wage and decent health care,” Burns said.
Harol López described Fuerza Laboral’s work to stop wage theft by Avalon Bay, a construction company, who withheld over $15,000 in wages from undocumented workers. Although Avalon Bay eventually worked out a payment with Fuerza Laboral, workers’ internalized fear along with a vast, interstate system of subcontracting made it incredibly difficult to secure justice.
“The fear when you’re undocumented really stops workers from speaking out. It’s fear of being reported, fear of being fired and not being able to find a new job or a job that’s as good,” said López. Gladys Gould from AFSCME added, “[The subcontracting companies] threaten people with their jobs, and then these workers won’t organize…We have women who get sexually assaulted, who put up with all these things because they don’t want to lose their jobs.”
Mark Baumer, a library worker, described the poor quality of work done by an outside company in the John Hay Library. He continued by saying that although they were supposed to be specialists for archival documents, the company mismanaged the library’s materials and, in turn, put strain on the professional employees.
Baumer and Sanchez both commented on the dwindling numbers of professional and unionized staff at Brown. “In 2006, 2007, we had ninety-plus workers, and now we’re down in the low sixties. There’s just kind of a loss of hope among a lot of us union workers, because we see the numbers disappearing and we’re not sure how to fight against that,” said Baumer.
So what can we do? As large corporations, including Brown, use subcontracting, outsourcing, and privatization to take advantage of already marginalized workers, students have a unique position to collectively stand up and stand with these workers. “Direct action is really what makes a difference and really gives us power,” said Lopez during the panel.
On October 30, administrators notified Sanchez and the Mail Services driver that their mail routes were going to be analyzed on Wednesday, November 5. It was only after further research by Sanchez that he found out the analyst was a Ricoh employee, just like the mailroom analysts last spring. SLA sent a letter to the administration on behalf of the drivers, asking them to disinvite the analyst, maintain the current drivers, and publicly commit not to outsource their jobs. In response, Beppie Huidekoper, vice president of financial and administrative services, and Elizabeth Gentry, assistant vice president of financial and administrative services, met with SLA members, where they promised to draft a written commitment not to outsource the drivers’ positions. Huidekoper also claimed that the drivers agreed to the analysis and understood that there was no intention to outsource their jobs, and maintained that the analyst was coming to reorganize the driving route and distribution of mailboxes. She agreed to reschedule the date for the analyst to come to Brown.
However, because workers still felt distrustful of the administration, SLA followed through with its plan to hold a rally in front of J. Walter Wilson. The goal was to raise awareness about Brown’s mistreatment of workers and to demonstrate that the university would be held accountable for its actions. At the rally, Brown workers from a variety of departments came to show their support. They marched and chanted alongside students, calling on Brown to put workers before profit. Toward the end, when asked if she had anything to say to the administration, one woman from custodial services said, “All they’re trying to do is pay us the least amount possible. Let’s have them clean toilets for twenty thousand [dollars] a year and see how they like it!”
There is a long and hard fight ahead, one that requires students to amplify workers’ voices and call for institutional changes at Brown. SLA has proposed a resolution for the Brown University Community Council (BUCC) that would require Brown to present all decisions to subcontract University services to the BUCC for review. This would increase the transparency of Brown’s decision-making and ensure that Brown cannot make these decisions when the campus is quiet during the summer. Although by no means the end of the fight for worker justice at Brown, SLA is hopeful that the resolution will be a step in the right direction.