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Bill Tierney

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The Consequences of Outsourcing and the Responsibility of the Academic

outsourcingI get to school around 6:30 a.m. I like the quiet and enjoy getting a jump-start on the day. Usually the only other people in the building are the janitorial staff who arrives well before I do. Over the last several years Blanca usually arrives on my floor shortly after I arrive. We never say very much to one another, but I have often felt comfortable that there are two of us quietly going about our respective jobs. (Recognize too that my arrival time is one of choice and hers is one of necessity.)

Blanca is part of the janitorial staff. Her employer is a company that USC has subcontracted to for our janitorial services. She is a 40-year-old immigrant from Mexico. She is married, has one child attending college, and has worked at ‘SC for almost eight years. She is thoughtful, hard-working, and sincere. If I were to guess, she earns about $11 per hour. The company provides health and retirement benefits.

In the beginning of February, the company decided as a cost-saving and efficiency measure to let go of 26 janitorial employees (approximately 10% of the janitorial staff). Those with the least amount of seniority were laid off. The janitors and the union that represents them question the layoffs and the increased efficiencies since fewer people are now cleaning the same amount of space. The janitors are concerned about rumors that the company is going to lay off more workers later this year and replace them with less expensive part-time employees who will not get health and retirement benefits.

On one level, outsourcing makes sense. As a university, we are a non-profit and if someone else can do something for us at a lower price then we save money. We can get lost in the thicket of economics on this matter but it’s also a simple capitalist premise. If I want pizza for lunch and there are two companies that deliver and one charges five bucks and the other charges 10 bucks, if all things are equal, I’ll pay five bucks. If it costs me six bucks to make a pizza and I can get one for five, then I’m likely to go with the pizza delivery.

But the consequences of outsourcing are not economic abstractions about pizza.

Are we comfortable hiring a company that decides to lay off 10% of its workers just six months into a three-year contract with the workers’ labor union? If they were to replace current workers with cheaper labor would that be a concern? Or perhaps we should simply have a blind eye to those who do nothing illegal. A company has the right to hire and fire its employees, so why should I be concerned about the hiring practices of a company? One answer is that we could cancel the contract with a company that lets go of campus staff as a cost-saving measure; in effect, we’re willing to pay the 10 bucks for a pizza because the other company is doing something we consider smarmy. But we’re not canceling the contract. In fact, we’re not even questioning it.

I find this matter unsettling on several levels. At its core this issue goes to the heart of academic life. Presumably the faculty by way of shared governance should have something to say about how we treat one another—but the faculty has said and done nothing. Others will say that the faculty should have zilch to say about outsourcing—that this is an administrative issue and it has nothing to do with shared governance.

I’ve written previously that over the last generation the discrepancy between the highest and lowest paid on our campuses has risen inexorably. Whereas it used to be something like 20:1 it’s now 400:1. I’m not opposed to paying top dollar for senior administrators. But I’m opposed to screwing people further down the economic ladder. And if we really feel there is no relationship between those of us at the top of the economic food chain and those at the bottom, then we really need to pause and consider our academic priorities.

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