Op-Ed: Stanford’s Labor Rights Problem

Feb. 23, 2013, 3:36 p.m.

I’m not an activist. I don’t occupy or protest, sit in or walk out. Though I’m a Roman Catholic, sixth-generation liberal California Democrat who was reared on homily after homily and parental spiel after parental spiel about fighting for the rights of laborers, I never paid much attention to the issue – or perhaps I chose to ignore it. Recently, though, it’s been difficult to look the other way and accept Stanford’s unfair treatment of its loyal employees. It’s time for all of us to admit: Stanford has a problem.

My freshman year I was part of “Habla,” a group that tutors Stanford janitors who need help learning English. Uriel, my tutee, worked two jobs and lived in East Palo Alto. Ultimately, though, Uriel stopped coming to our sessions. It wasn’t because he lost interest in learning English (he was making quite a bit of progress, in fact). Uriel, along with all of his co-workers, was laid off by the subcontractor to which Stanford had outsourced janitorial responsibilities.

Did Stanford know he would be unable to continue learning English? Probably not. Did Stanford ensure that he found another job? Doubtful. Stanford’s decision was purely strategic. At a certain point, Stanford would become responsible for overseeing the conditions under which the janitors worked, from fair insurance policies to issues of labor abuse. So the janitors were cycled out, replaced by new ones who will likely meet the same fate as Uriel, all the while saving Stanford a little money. These types of practices have been occurring campus-wide, from the recent decision to restructure the management of Suites dining to the widespread layoffs and outsourcing of janitors at the Medical School. It doesn’t take the head of AFL-CIO to tell you that’s wrong.

While I don’t pretend to know how difficult some administrative decisions are or what details go into allocating Stanford’s operating budget, when an endowment exceeds 17 billion dollars, is there really cause for putting people like Uriel out of work to save some cash? While I’m sure the administrators at ResEd don’t just sit around and brainstorm ways to lay off employees, is the university really doing everything it can to ensure that labor practices aren’t just legal but also fair? And while I’m sure we can all agree that having another Arrillaga gym will be nice, can we honestly say that we wouldn’t have preferred for some of that money to go towards keeping people in work?

My sense is that a lot of people will read this and assure me that the Stanford practices I’ve described haven’t really affected them. “I don’t live in Chi Theta Chi,” you might say, or “I don’t know the chefs at Suites.”

Neither do I. I really do understand how easy it would be to read this column, close this issue of The Daily, and do no more than simply shake your head at ResEd. Don’t get me wrong: I love our school. I don’t like to preach. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an activist type.

But when the university that I am proud to associate with and the administrators whom I trust begin to put profits over loyal employees and cost-saving over student interests, I’ll raise a voice and recall that sense of social justice that sometimes gets buried inside me. I hope you will, too.

Matthew Colford ‘14

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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