The following is written by Brian Igo. Brian Igo is a senior completing degrees in Philosophy and Government & Politics at the University of Maryland. This article speaks to both the material conditions of public workers labor at the University of Maryland and to the racism among the University’s management.
Public workers at the University of Maryland describe the material conditions of their labor as those similar to a slave plantation
Austerity” has been the favored buzzword of politicians for some months now: So long as we all “tighten our belts,” Americans can make it through this depression (how exactly this Hooverite logic is supposed to save us is rarely elaborated upon). Among those most affected by this economic policy are the workers in the pubic sectors. And the workers are starting to push back. This was most obvious in Wisconsin over the past several weeks, but it is beginning to happen elsewhere in the country. Recently, the campus workers at the University of Maryland have reached out to the student newspaper and various campus groups and distributed an anonymous letter (originally delivered to the campus’s Vice President of Administrative Affairs with apparently little result) which describes their maltreatment at the hands of the University’s management over the past couple years. And the scope of their abuse is quite shocking. It has come to the point that many workers feel as if they are working on slave era southern plantation. In general, they feel that they work in an environment of mismanagement, fear, degradation, exploitation, and at times even racism. The consensus among the workers is that this type of environment has steadily gotten worse over the past fifteen years particularly in the past three or four years.
Management is seen as a whip holder for the university
Many of the workers in the facilities management department feel that the management structure is designed in such a way that there is little opportunity for advancement. One worker (who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job), described how experienced and qualified workers are rarely given management positions. The tight knit Management structure rarely delivers on its oft made promises to hire new higher level managers from the existing workforce. Rather, people from outside the workforce are brought in to management openings, and there is a general feeling among the laborers that these positions are given to friends of existing higher ups.
One worker described to me how a 30 year veteran of the department was compelled to take on the responsibilities of a manager for more than a year, but when he actually applied for the position (and the attendant benefits), he was told that he was “unqualified,” and someone from outside the workforce was brought in to fill the opening. The worker goes on to describe how workers are often left un-notified about new management positions with higher salaries. These positions are then filled by people outside the existing labor pool who are often unqualified for the job. Additionally, one worker in facilities management estimates that while a majority of the labor force is Black or Latino, management (again, often pulled from outside the workforce) is predominantly white.
Wage slavery assures that public workers’ pay remains low
The laborers’ pay is also often dreadfully low. A worker in the grounds keeping department told me how comparable entry level positions in the city of College Park sometimes earn thousands more than their University of Maryland equivalents. It is also apparently difficult for workers to receive overtime pay. When there is extra work to be done, this worker says, it is often the case that the managers in the department will instead pay outside contract labor. Moreover, some workers have not received pay raises in four years and thus many workers have to work second jobs to make ends meet. This is hardly surprising, considering the current economic situation and as some workers do not receive pay during school breaks.
Racism is alive and well in the so-called post-racial era
A spokesperson for the university stated that he has (on several occasions) met with non-exempt workers who sought us out so that they could air their grievances. According to the spokesperson who remains anonymous:
“These grievances were primarily regarding verbal degradation and mistreatment from their superiors. Other grievances consisted of workers who stated that they were systematically written up for things such as arriving 6 minutes late to work despite traveling in the midst of snowy weather. These workers have routinely expressed that this kind of treatment has contributed to poor overall morale when working at UMD due to fear of being verbally degraded.”
He/she also described a recent situation in which an employee in the residence halls came to him in tears because of the treatment of her superiors.
In a report on the situation, the campus newspaper further reported that construction specialist Abe Goodwin, “and other staff members said the managers’ actions sometimes bordered on discriminatory, noting [facilities management director Kristen] Kostecky took no action upon witnessing managers make racially insensitive comments in front of other staff members.”
The Human Resource Department Acts as a Public Relations Department leaving no redress for workers
Unsurprisingly, all this results in a general culture of fear in the workplace. This fear is compounded by the fact that workers generally feel that the HR department is little more than a PR department for the University. Some workers contend that the Human Resources department’s main function is to keep the complaints of the workers quiet. In the anonymous letter to the University’s Vice President of University affairs, an employee of the Campus Projects department stated that “I know that we have an HR department, but I do not feel that my job would be safe if I took that course of action” regarding filing complaints about superiors. This is apparently a common sentiment and workers are equally afraid of going on the record about their working conditions (http://www.diamondbackonline.com/staff-call-workplace-labor-camp-1.2133467).
The University of Maryland has deep roots in slavery
Five years ago the University of Maryland celebrated its 150th anniversary and (somewhat predictably) looked at its past through a rosy lens. While examining and celebrating its past the University oddly forgot to mention its founder’s connection with slavery. Three years later in 2009, then President Dan Mote authorized an undergraduate research project under the advisory of Professor Ira Berlin to examine the University’s involvement with the “peculiar institution.” The study found that the key figures in the foundation of the University (at the time known as the Maryland Agricultural College) were divided on the issue of slavery. While the first President - Benjamin Hollowell - was a Quaker abolitionist, who prevented the use of slave labor on campus, many of the original financial contributors - most notably Charles Calvert -were wealthy planters who derived their income from slave labor. As Professor Berlin noted, “If slaves didn’t lay the bricks, they made the bricks. If they didn’t make the bricks, they drove the wagon that brought the bricks. If they didn’t drive the wagon, they built the wagon wheels.” While the study didn’t find any conclusive proof of this, the statement does seem to have a certain intuitive appeal. Slavery was made illegal with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, so whatever complicity the Maryland Agricultural College had in the institution of slavery presumably ended then.
In 2011, the campus workers are paid, so one would assume that talk of slavery would more or less be restricted to the history department. Regrettably, this is far from the case. Campus workers refer to their workplace as “The Plantation” and liken their working conditions to that of a “Labor Camp.” One might brush this off with a cynical “hey, everyone hates their job” type of banality if they did not actually talk to the workers.
It is probably a comforting thought that slavery is confined to the University’s past. And in a sense it is; it is not as if the University “owns” their employees in the sense that they “own” a desk in a lecture hall. However, the conditions of fear and degradation under which the workers labor has created a feeling among them that their conditions are comparable to those on a slave plantation (one anonymous worker described the comparison as “nearly 100% accurate”). In an otherwise respectable institution with such high (and rising) tuition and a large endowment, this is unacceptable. In the coming weeks several groups on campus plan to stage protests and teach ins about this too long ignored - and perhaps even suppressed - injustice. We hope for your support and solidarity.