Unethical Labor Practices at Fordham?


Published: October 11, 2007

At Fordham University, an institution dedicated to advocating social justice throughout New York City and the world, it’s ironic to think that unethical labor practices could be occurring within the school’s very walls. During this summer’s pre-orientation,Urban Plunge program, incoming freshman took part in community service projects throughout New York City, and learned in great depth about the crisis currently plaguing our nation concerning the minimum wage and the “living wage.” But could it be that, unknowingly, Fordham’s administration is not practicing what it preaches?

You may have seen Steve* around campus. As one of FCLC’s many uniformed security guards, he spends 40 hours a week protecting us during class and (for residents) even while we sleep.  What you may not know, however, is that Fordham’s security officers (at both Lincoln Center and Rose Hill) are currently facing critical issues regarding a move from their current union, Allied Security—which has withheld information from security guards and left them in the face of poor healthcare, low wages and unclear benefits—to a new union (SEIU Local 32BJ) where they would be welcomed with superior benefits. SEIU Local 32BJ is the largest building service workers union in the country, representing over 85,000 workers in New York, Washington DC, and five other states. SEIU would inform the guards of their benefits not only because it is a legal requirement, but simply because members of a union should know their benefits.

“I think they will step forward, I think they will help,” one guard said of his fellow security officers. As the first guard to speak up for the majority, he placed himself in the face of danger. “I’m just a guard, just like them. I’m afraid right now. I’m so used to being exploited. I’m just hoping for something better.”

Fordham’s security officers are not direct employees of the university; rather, they are considered outside contractors to the university. Fordham employs Summit Security, a private security service, which, in turn, hires the guards. Summit Security, whose major clients include JP Morgan, Chase, Jet Blue Airlines, Fordham University and other major corporations, is headquartered in Uniondale, Long Island, with offices in New York and New Jersey, including officers stationed in NYC and at JFK International Airport.  Summit employs 2,500 people and has a reported $34.2 million in revenues. The starting salary for a Summit officer is $9.95 an hour; one officer reported receiving a 20 cent raise for every seven months of work.

Security officers at Fordham have never seen a contract between Summit and Fordham, nor have they seen a union contract. “I’m not sure that Fordham is the bad guy,” one officer said. “Fordham employs Summit, and Summit employs us. No one has seen the contract between Fordham and Summit. Does Fordham know what Summit is doing? We don’t know. We are hired to come here and work, and that’s it. We just come here, work eight hours, and go home. There is a lack of communication going on. No one knows what Fordham pays Summit.”

I love my new school, and each member of administrator who I’ve met thus far, but one must question how likely it really is that the persons-of-power at an esteemed university, like Fordham, wouldn’t know how much their security guards (who they, too, walk past everyday) are being paid.

According to an officer, guards have made both formal and informal requests to see union contracts, but have been denied access to the documents. Allied Security, the current union of the security guards, refuses to distribute copies of the contract between Summit and Fordham so as to keep guards from decertifying Allied as the union. To decertify the union contract (and switch to a new union), an officer would need to act 60-90 days prior to the date at which the union contract will expire. But if Allied refuses to offer the contract between Fordham and Summit for viewing by the officers, the officers cannot find out the expiration date of the union contract, and thus cannot switch unions. This is illegal and unfair.

Along with low wages, which place most guards just above the poverty line, there are numerous reasons for which a new union is critical. “I’m not even clear on what my benefits are,” one officer said. “There have been guards who have gone to the doctor’s office and been rejected. I have never used my benefits—I pay out of my own pocket when I go to the doctor.” The guard explained that he has never used his health card because he has heard so many stories of officers who have attempted to use theirs and been unsuccessful. The insurance cards can apparently be used only at Borough Medical Centers (there is very little information about these centers publicly available). “I don’t know anyone who has used it successfully,” one officer said.

Problems do not cease with insufficient healthcare: “I get two sick days, but I have never taken a day off,” one officer said. “I can’t afford it. Then, [if one does take a sick day], it takes a week or two, maybe three, to get that sick day’s pay. And if you live check to check…Some checks have also bounced [in the past] and guards have been charged a fee.”

Summit’s federal and state law violations are astronomical. Current investigations by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) concern security officers at Fordham University who were interrogated by Summit regarding union activity, and an investigation surrounding an issue where Summit transferred and reduced the pay of a worker because of his union participation. How can these violations just be ignored? These situations alone provide reason to question the company’s integrity and morale.

Two violations of the New York State Security Guard Act in 2002 and 2004 have also been reported. Since 2002, Summit has been charged with over $63,000 in New York State hour and wage violations; in 2005 and 2006, Summit was charged $1,000 in violations by the New Jersey Department of Labor.

Summit Security’s violations go beyond those of law: after the attacks of 9/ll—during which nine Summit Security officers lost their lives—none of the surviving officers were given wages or benefits within 24 hours of the attacks. The majority of other World Trade Center contractors continued to provide wages and benefits after the attacks. So, for good measure, let’s add this to the list of flaws: inability to behave with basic decency and respect.

A new union would help protect the officers against things of these sorts, but if Fordham were to have their officers work in-house (janitors are employed in-house by Fordham for $19 an hour with pension) rather than as outside contractors, conditions would improve. Fordham, the building owner, would call the shots and set standards, rather than Summit.

Unlike Fordham’s janitors, Summit officers do not receive pensions. Most officers have families at home and have no choice but to work overtime for a decent weekly salary. However, since more officers have recently been hired, many overtime hours have become unavailable. Summit officers must resort to stretching their dollars.

Some officers qualify for the “dorm rate,” which is $11.90 an hour. An officer must be on the schedule for five days or more to be on the “dorm rate.” If an officer works four days on the schedule, but more with overtime, he will not get the dorm rate because he was not on that week’s schedule for five days. Only three officers qualify for the dorm rate each week.

Most officers will not speak up about this important issue for “fear of the unknown, fear of being sent to another site, fear of fewer hours,” according to one officer. Fordham is one of Summit’s highest paying locations. For the overwhelming majority of officers, Fordham is their first and only job. They have families to support, and would rather accept their living conditions as they are than get involved in fighting for better working conditions. “Other security guards have the same feelings I have, but are afraid to step forward,” one officer said. “They have more to lose by stepping out than by not speaking because when the hammer comes down, there is no other job.”

A similar issue was recently acknowledged at Columbia University. According to Andy Friedman, a representative for SEIU Local 32BJ, the university recently committed to investigate the responsibility of their contractor for poor working conditions. If they find that the contractor is responsible, they will find a new one. Columbia’s administration responded to concerns on campus similar to those currently brewing between Fordham’s campuses.

Fordham has always been dedicated to reaching out and advocating social justice—Urban Plunge, Global Outreach, Campus Ministry—but why start anywhere past our very walls?   Why reach out globally when things need to be fixed here at home?


*Name as been changed to retain anonymity of the worker