Letter to the Community: What we’ve been doing at Students for Workers’ Rights

Opinion by Ethan Chua
June 26, 2020, 9:03 a.m.

We at Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) apologize that it’s taken us so long to update the community on our campaign for contracted workers. We spent April and May anxiously corresponding with service workers about promised pay that had yet to arrive, and we struggled to communicate changes because of the persistent opacity of Stanford administrators. Right after UG2 workers finally received their promised pay continuance, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin compelled us to spend our energy in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s our conviction that the struggle for Black liberation and the struggle for labor justice are intimately intertwined

Our campaign for Stanford to pay benefits and wages to its laid off contracted workers led to an enormous community response, including over $150,000 in mutual aid raised for workers, over 5,000 signatures on a community petition and a press conference covered by the SF Chronicle and the Washington Post. We are deeply grateful, too, for the various ways that communities continued supporting contracted workers through COVID-19 — from a faculty letter of support, community fundraisers and even Zoom workouts for workers’ rights. Thanks to this community effort, Provost Persis Drell sent an email to the student body on April 14 promising that contracted firms would be “supported in maintaining income and benefits for [their] employees through June 15,” a promise that has since been extended to August 30. This victory is tremendous, and is a testament to the collective power that can be marshaled when students and workers stand together.

However, following Provost Drell’s commitment, SWR remained skeptical. While the pay continuance policy was announced to the student body, workers themselves had not been informed about the policy change. In fact, not only was the policy not announced to workers, but the disbursement of funds was continually delayed. UG2 workers were not paid until six entire weeks after Provost Drell’s announcement. In addition, ambiguities about the difference between contracted workers and vendors left some workers without pay, such as Bon Appetit workers employed at the Graduate School of Business.

To hold the administration accountable, SWR worked with other activist allies and concerned students, including members of the ASSU, to meet with Elizabeth Zacharias, head of University Human Resources, and Provost Drell. We asked Zacharias and Drell questions such as how many contractors the University employed and who was in charge of ensuring that contracted workers would get paid. Neither Zacharias nor Drell answered these questions, both telling us that they did not know who was in charge of enforcing pay continuance. This is deeply concerning, as Zacharias and Drell have essentially divested themselves of the responsibility to implement the announced pay continuance policies.

Zacharias’ and Drell’s evasive responses to our inquiries gesture to a systemic issue of subcontracting on college campuses, where Stanford has the dubious status of being a pioneer. The University hired the janitorial contracting firm ABM in 1921, making ABM the first janitorial contractor in America to clean a major college campus. Although advocates of subcontracting gesture to it as a tool for maximizing labor efficiency, subcontracting is a profit-maximizing strategy that undercuts the security and collective bargaining power of workers. By subcontracting out labor, campuses like Stanford shift the responsibility to provide benefits such as healthcare plans, paid sick and vacation leave, and retirement funds to contracted firms. They also wash their hands of labor violations that occur against workers, which are attributed to contracting firms. 

SWR is grateful to the immense community support for contracted workers that emerged through the spring, and we call on members of the Stanford community to join us as we keep fighting — for hazard pay for UG2 employees, for accountability and transparency in subcontracting and against the prospect of layoffs during the upcoming academic year. To stay updated with SWR’s campaigns, you can sign up to join our mailing list or follow us on social media (Twitter: @stanford_swr; Instagram: @stanfordswr; Facebook: stanfordswr).

— Ethan Chua, on behalf of Students for Workers’ Rights

Contact Ethan Chua at ezlc327 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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