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Georgetown University viewed as a model for worker relations in schools
Catholic News Service photo
Two women walking on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington. 
Catholic News Service photo
Two women walking on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington. 
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Georgetown University's approach to labor relations was promoted as a model of putting Catholic social teaching into practice that all Catholic universities could follow.

The Jesuit-run university in Washington, the nation's oldest Catholic university, has had to endure some slippery steps over the past 15 years, but it appears to be at a point where university officials, students, workers and even contractors are on the same page.

The Georgetown model was touted during a Feb. 1 meeting of the Catholic Labor Network, which held its annual meeting in Washington prior to the Feb. 2-5 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. The Catholic Labor Network is one of the annual gathering's many sponsors.

Georgetown's experience began with the 1998-2000 effort led by students to ban Georgetown-logo apparel made in foreign sweatshops from being sold on campus. Students at many colleges across the United States had launched similar efforts, leading to a nationwide organization, United Students Against Sweatshops.

The university reached a deal in 2000 with the firms it licensed to manufacture the gear, which prescribed the working conditions and pay rates for employees at the garment factories run by the licensees' contractors.

Like Georgetown, a number of other public and private universities now have similar agreements with the top firms in the athletic-apparel business.

When John DeGioia took over as Georgetown's president in 2001, he told top administrators that he would rather Georgetown be in the forefront on labor issues instead of being in a reactive position. To that end, he had dinner with representatives of Georgetown's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, as well as John Sweeney, then president of the AFL-CIO, and Thomas Donahue, a former AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, on how to treat the university's workers more justly.

That didn't mean there weren't tough roads to travel. As students pushed Georgetown to assure a "living wage" for all of its employees in 2004-05, some students staged a hunger strike "which nobody wanted," said Julia Hubbell, a current student leader of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee student group. But it led to a Just Employment Policy governing both Georgetown and its contractors, and a more constructive relationship between administrators and students, Hubbell added.

The policy has been tested on occasion. An Indonesian factory making apparel for Nike and Adidas shut down without notice in 2012. Nike paid partial severance to the workers, but Adidas refused, even after being notified by Georgetown that refusing could result in the cancellation of its contract.

When Adidas still persisted, Georgetown made good on its threat to cancel. Then 17 other universities canceled their contracts with Adidas. "I don't know if that made Adidas change its mind, but it showed how seriously universities took their licensing requirements," said Cal Watson, Georgetown's assistant director of business planning. Adidas ultimately paid severance to the factory workers to return to the schools' good graces.

Georgetown's student food service is also run under contract. When Marriott ended its contract with Georgetown in 2010, it assured workers that "things would be the same" under the new contractor, Aramark, according to Tarshea Smith, who had worked at Georgetown since high school.

But things did not stay the same. "We were getting fired, we were getting written up every day, we were afraid to talk to each other on the job," she said.

One morning Smith suffered an epileptic seizure so severe it required an emergency-room visit. When she "came to," she said, she called her supervisor to tell her she wouldn't be able to work that day. She added the supervisor told her, "OK, but when you come in tomorrow I'm going to have to write you up," since she did not give two hours' notice of her absence.

At her discipline meeting, Smith pleaded the genuineness of her medical emergency and that she needed to keep her job, as she was raising two sons as a single mother. "Oh, I believe you, but we don't fire workers," she said the supervisor told her. "They fire themselves."

When a Georgetown Solidarity Committee member asked Smith later that day how she was doing and Smith was uncharacteristically low-key in her response, she followed Smith into the women's room to get to the bottom of the situation. After the student was told what had happened, Smith said she asked her, "What are you going to do about it?" Smith, initially believing she could do nothing, was convinced by the student to talk to her fellow workers about joining a union. The first union organizing meeting drew not only workers, but students, faculty and some Jesuit priests in residence at Georgetown.

When food service workers reported being harassed by Aramark during the union election campaign, students convinced Georgetown to write a letter reminding Aramark of a provision in the Just Employment Program to respect the workers' right to organize.

The letter achieved its intended effect. Aramark stayed neutral, a majority of the workers voted to join a union, the resulting contract spells out how discipline is to be applied and how workers can appeal it.

Smith, though, no longer works in the cafeteria. She was hired by UNITE HERE, the union now representing the Georgetown food-service workers, as an organizer.

While other universities -- Catholic, private and public -- have had contentious battles with adjunct faculty who want to organize into unions, Georgetown's adjuncts organized fairly easily. "The tacit understanding was that we wouldn't criticize Georgetown and they would be neutral," said Anne McLeer, an organizer with a Service Employees International Union local that represents adjuncts at four colleges in Washington and Maryland.

Nick Welsch, a Kalmanovitz Initiative program coordinator, said the Georgetown model could be applied at other Catholic universities in general, and at the 28 U.S. Jesuit universities in particular. "But we don't have enough people" to spread the word at the same time, he added. Currently, Kalmanovitz is working with a few Jesuit schools on the East Coast and a few others on the West Coast on how to implement its principals.

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