Addressing Inequality on Campus
By Laurel Fish ‘14, on behalf of the Stanford Labor Action Coalition, published December, 2011
With Stanford’s generous financial aid policies and all-you-care-to-eat meal plans, it’s easy to think that inequality ends when we step onto campus. We tutor in East Palo Alto, travel to Central America, host speakers from off campus, and volunteer in free clinics in order to experience “the real world.” What many forget however, is that poverty, inequality, and other unfair realities of “the real world” exist on our campus. The postcard visage of the Stanford Bubble is serviced, maintained, cooked, pruned, and repaired by workers.
Stanford workers are essential to our lives, but how many of us know their names, whether they have a manageable workload, or whether they make enough money to support their families? Yet more important than individual recognition, is institutional responsibility. Last year, Stanford’s subcontractor fired 26 janitors, several of whom had worked here for over 10 years. Stanford has outsourced sectors of workers who were previously hired in-house, making their working conditions and employment more precarious. The university has also failed to hire more employees when new job sites have been established, creating unsafe, feverish workloads. Meanwhile, the administration still refuses to close loopholes in its living wage policy. This means that employees at vendors like The Bookstore, Tree House, and Coupa, and all unionized employees, are not guaranteed enough pay to make ends meet.
These policies and decisions create and perpetuate inequality on campus, which in turn perpetuates inequality in society at large. This year, kitchen staff in self-operating houses will receive only 6 days of paid vacation, versus the 5 weeks they were formerly entitled to, and will not be paid their annual holiday bonuses. Their health care coverage has also been reduced by 50%, and they must pay for parking permits and health certifications, which the university formerly covered. Many chefs and hashers working in self-ops and Greek houses are now unable to pay for all of their living expenses, let alone holiday cheer for their families. These changes are clearly not a result of budgetary constraints, as student fees to live on the Row increased by over $300 this year.
Strenuous workloads and managerial mistreatment not only harm workers, but rob students and the whole Stanford community of meaningful interactions. It is nearly impossible to have a reciprocal relationship with someone who is not only under constant pressure to work faster, but is also being told at an institutional level that their work is not valued.
Despite the fact that the endowment has shown robust growth and most companies’ profit margins have rebounded, the administration continues to use the financial recession to excuse its treatment of workers. For example, Row workers, who have always worked for Student Organized Services (SOS) under an indefinite contract, have recently been told that SOS must now compete with other bidders. This change requires that SOS cut benefits and purchase food from bigger, less sustainable vendors to lower expenses. Even when administrators do not explicitly use the excuse of a recession, they exploit the vulnerability of workers in a surplus labor economy. Given current unemployment levels, the administration knows that service workers have little choice but to accept speed-ups, benefit cuts, temporary hires, and harsh treatment by managers. Yet all of these austerity measures come at a time when Stanford has no problem spending $20.3 million for a new dining hall, or an estimated $30 million for a gym on West campus, and has received $709.4 million in donations this year to add to a plush $19.5 billion endowment. Clearly, the issue is the administration’s priorities, not a lack of resources.
As members of the Stanford community, we need to remember that the inequality the Occupy movement brings to light is not external to campus. Let’s start by addressing the immediate threat to Row house workers and demand that benefits be restored to 2010-2011 levels (sign the petition at: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/give-stanford-row-chefs/). More broadly, we have to take responsibility for how our institution perpetuates economic and social inequality—if we set our eyes on becoming future leaders at the expense of working to change inequalities at Stanford, we miss the opportunity to make the world better right now.
The Stanford Labor Action Coalition acts as an advocate for all workers on Stanford’s campus, amplifying their voices and concerns through worker-student solidarity. Laurel is a sophomore studying Anthropology.
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