Alumni: Justice for the Housekeepers

A few weeks ago, Randal J. Freebourn, VP of Finance and Administration, sent a campus-wide email informing the Wittenberg community members that the university would be reviewing contracts with service providers. As a part of that process, Mr. Freebourn solicited Requests for Proposals (RFP) for housing services.

As alumni of Wittenberg University and members of the campus family and community, we write to urge the committee undertaking the RFP review process to seriously reconsider the current contract with WFF Facilities Services — the university’s housekeeping service provider. Moreover, we urge other members of the campus community to reach out to the committee and communicate the same sentiment.

The current contract with WFF is both undermining the university’s mission, and causing human suffering.

Back in 2012, the university elected to switch housekeeping service providers, from ABM — which paid a decent living wage, offered a fairly generous benefits package and recognized the rights of its workers to organize and collectively bargain — to WFF, a non-union contractor that pays its workers $8.50 per hour and offers meager benefits.

In doing so, the university effectively slashed the wages and benefits of some 30 housekeeping staff members, stripped many others of their jobs completely and drove many workers — who are disproportionately women and women of color — and their families into financial hardship.

The cut, according to a Springfield News-Sun article from the time, saves the university roughly $600,000 yearly. Yet, it is costing Wittenberg and the housekeepers a great deal more.

For one, these employment practices cause real-life, tangible human suffering. The harsh material circumstances the current and former housekeepers have been forced to endure — brought on by the un- and under-employment, the poverty wages, the lousy benefits — have serious health consequences.

Those consequences are multiple, complex and long-lasting, but a single statistic might serve to summarize: in a 2011 article published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), researchers estimated that poverty kills 133,000 Americans yearly.

Furthermore, engaging in such exploitative labor practices completely undermines the mission of the university.

Wittenberg’s mission statement calls for members of the campus community to, among other things, “combine an awareness of suffering with a desire to respond,” “promote social justice” and “advance the common good.” These are all noble pursuits, and reasons why we chose to attend Wittenberg. But the university simply cannot, with any semblance of seriousness, purport to be pursuing this mission while engaging in such egregious employment practices, while perpetuating injustice, while inflicting such human suffering. It’s simply indefensible.

So consider this our RFP: the university should take the appropriate steps to contract with a provider that pays a decent, livable wage, that offers generous benefits, that respects the rights of its workers to have a say over the conditions of their labor. This isn’t a matter of charity; it’s one of justice. The services the housekeepers provide are indispensable for the operation of the campus.

They made our education possible. The housekeepers are vital members of the campus community, and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

And, again, we strongly urge other members of the campus community — staff, faculty, students, administrators — to use this opportunity to express the same sentiment. Especially at a time when the university is being governed by forces that seem largely out of our control, it’s important to take any chance one has to advance justice on campus.

Wittenberg University is currently in a state of financial disarray — which, to be sure, renders making ethically sound choices quite difficult. But the decisions a community makes while under pressure reveal its true character. Indeed, whether or not the university chooses to recognize the humanity and desert of the housekeepers moving forward will reflect whether or not Wittenberg is seriously committed to advancing its mission, whether it has any light to pass on at all.

Drew Ludwig, ‘00; Luke Dennis, ‘00; Sarah Hauer, ‘00; Rev. Kate Adamson, ‘01; Karl Miller, ‘01; Josh Keiter, ‘01; Dana Norris, ‘01; Philip Mielke, ‘01; Mindi Lane, ‘02; Thomas Haushalter, ‘02; Jared Embree, ‘02; Krissie Wells, ‘08; Nishant Makhija, ‘12; Ian McNeill, ‘13; Casey P. O’Brien, ‘13; Kate Causbie, ‘14; Josh Hayes, ‘14; Martin Lukk, ‘14; Tiana Gilbert, ‘14; Sarah Ziska, ‘14; Taylor Roberts, ‘14; Kaitlyn Carter, ‘14; Will London, ‘14; Ally Mersch, ‘15; Maggi Quigley, ‘15; Elizabeth Doll, ‘15; Trevor Brown, ‘15; Kayla Murphy, ‘15; Lindsay Dukes, ‘15; Tom Dwyer, ‘15; Caroline Bovair, ‘15; Emily Shaw, ‘11.

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