Stanford Labor Action Coalition Misses Full Picture in Row House Staff Petition

Before the end of 2011, the Stanford Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) circulated a petition to restore the wages and benefits of chefs and other kitchen staff in Row houses. The petition, which gathered 1400 signatures (although, as the Daily notes, 200 of those were anonymous or repeat signatures), seems to have tried to accomplish more than one thing. It advocates for reinstated compensation for Row kitchen staff, but at the same time it decries the university’s attempts to centralize kitchen labor, vendor, and purchase decisions. This leaves many others and me wondering what SLAC is really trying to achieve.

But first, some context is necessary. Although the petition gathered many signatures, the Stanford population is mostly still oblivious to any such movement at all. That’s fair—we sign too many petitions that our friends forward to us to really notice their full purpose.

Starting with the 2011-2012 academic year, Residential Education (ResEd) has attempted to take more control over the Row houses’ independent management decisions. Most notable is that ResEd will now take charge of paying vendors who supply row houses with food for meals, allowing financial managers access to only 30 percent of the budget allocated to open kitchen items.

Furthermore, ResEd now collects a standardized $75 social fee from every student on the Row. Formerly, individual financial managers raised however much they wanted from their residents. Also, social fees can not be used to acquire alcohol, since the purchase of alcohol using funds from a university account is prohibited.

The biggest talking point for SLAC, however, is that chefs and hashers in Row kitchens are looking at reductions in health insurance coverage and cuts in paid vacations and holiday bonuses.

So what is terrible about the university taking more control? Row houses have incredible inconsistency in how much they collect in social dues from their residents. The figures could range anywhere from $30 to over $100.

The essence of a Row house is that students get to choose the culture of their house, including what events they want to host, and how they want to use discretionary funds in order to supplement a cohesive social living situation. None of this includes, or needs to include, who they employ in their kitchens. If complete control over food is something that students seek, Stanford does a great job of providing accommodations such as Rains or Mirrielees, where students can pursue such freedom at will.

In collecting standardized social dues, Stanford ensures that the choice of a house culture does not cost anyone particularly more or less, thus emphasizing the idea that students should choose row houses based on themes and living situations.

And by stepping in to ensure that the university is no longer legally liable for houses using university funds to purchase alcohol, the university is actually prompting students to assess their alcohol needs, and come to a consensus about what should be a sensible amount to charge.

But the thought of Row workers being compensated less is a terrible one, especially for students on the Row who have great relationships with their staff.

However, pay cuts are a fact of the modern American—and global—work life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over the last year, the state of California has seen a 5% cut in average pay to employees. This is because of rising costs and a poor economy, and the university as a private entity has no obligation to incur higher costs in order to keep employees from having to make concessions.

In fact, the university can perhaps enjoy a far greater economy of scale in centralized operation than can any particular row house. SLAC complains about the $300 increase in the price of living on the Row—this number could very well be much higher had the university not taken control of some Row house functions. It seems sensible that the university could negotiate a lower price with vendors and service agencies, when acting on behalf of 33 odd Row houses, as compared to however much bargaining power each of these Row houses would individually have.

In the state of California, and elsewhere, people are suffering. There are Stanford students whose family members are facing huge pay cuts, or have been laid off. The university is attempting to employ an economy of scale to buffer what could essentially be much greater than a $300 rise in fees for living on the Row. If successful, and it has not had nearly enough time to succeed or fail, the university could keep prices down and make living on the Row accessible to all.

In a scathing follow-up to the university’s rejection of their petition, SLAC claims that the university is misallocating funds, and that students are not getting the full value of their money. ResEd responded by promising to release a budget statement that clearly marks how funds are being utilized. And yet, without having received the budget, and with no hard evidence to support them, SLAC continues to promote the idea that the university is not providing the services for which it is charging.

I understand that SLAC rightly sympathizes with the hard working kitchen staff on the Row. But I also feel that SLAC fails to understand that not every student has the resources to act on perfect conscience, and ask their family to undertake greater financial burden for the sake of university employees. Especially not when these employees, although they are suffering, are not being subjected to any cruel punishment above and beyond what the average man in America is struggling against everyday.

Nadiv Rahman ’13 is a Political Science major at Stanford, and Opinion Editor of the Stanford Review. Please feel free to email him with any questions or comments at [email protected].

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