A coalition forming in Northern Virginia is asking the largest regional university why public dollars are going to employers that are bad actors in their community. In Northern Virginia, George Mason University has been expanding its footprint in the region and is now the largest university, in terms of enrollment, in the state. The university, with a budget of $1.25 billion, took in $180 million in taxpayer dollars and $448 million in students fees. Yet the university puts a low priority on the treatment of its contracted workforce much of which is immigrants and people of color. In contrast, the nearby Georgetown University has adopted a Just Employment Policy, which holds the institution to high labor standards for both contractors and direct employees.
GMU has no such policy and local activists are beginning to push the university to respect workers and implement more stringent procurement practices. This campaign began in 2010 when food service workers, contracted with Sodexo, began the work of forming their union with SEIU Local 32BJ. The university did not intervene despite Sodexo’s unwillingness to recognize the workers’ union. After years of struggle, including a one-day strike, the workers finally won a collective bargaining agreement in 2019 that raised average wages 12% and improved the health insurance.
This victory led to the janitorial staff, contracted with LT Services, to begin their effort to join 32BJ in the last two years. These workers allege poor and potentially illegal labor practices by the cleaning company such as being paid without taxes being deducted and forcing workers to come to work after exposure to the coronavirus. These kinds of labor practices are common when a public entity seeks the cheapest possible services with no regard to labor standards.
LT Services continues to intimidate workers to stop them from organizing and the National Labor Relations Board has found the company guilty of Unfair Labor Practices in recent months and forced the contractor to reinstate two fired workers.
As the janitorial staff was organizing, a construction union found drywall workers on campus construction projects also working under potentially illegal labor practices. In the construction industry, subcontractors often use labor brokers, which are construction staffing companies. In this case, the labor broker providing workers was paying the workers as independent contractors and not taking out mandatory payroll deductions such as taxes and social security. The laws around who can be classified as an independent contractor a stringent and these workers were almost certainly misclassified.
In the past, Virginia law has mandated that public entities award contracts to the lowest bidder, with no consideration of quality and reliability, much less labor standards. This practice often forces a race to the bottom with contractors forced to cut safety and labor standards to meet ever cheaper competition. However, the state is beginning to change these rules and is beginning to allow other factors to be considered. The coalition of GMU professors, students, labor unions, and community activists are demanding that GMU improve their procurement policies and stop using the money paid by students and taxpayers to support these low-wage, low-road employers.