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Villanova and Unions: Rejection or Celebration?

Last Monday night, a packed crowd gathered to celebrate Chris Smalls, this year’s honoree for the Center for Peace and Justice’s Adela Dwyer – St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award. Smalls has become an American household name due to his groundbreaking work as the founder and president of Amazon Labor Union, the first Amazon union in the United States.

At the ceremony, he gave an impassioned speech about his uphill battle in forming a union at a company known for its unfavorable working conditions and lack of employee-employer communication. He encouraged Villanovans to find common ground in the one thing all of us are or will be: workers. 

I attended the reception for this award, and despite the electric atmosphere created by Smalls’ speech and engagement from Villanova’s students and faculty, I was left feeling confused. 

This confusion stemmed from Villanova’s recent decision not to hire union labor for a roofing project on Jake Nevin Field House. The issue has been amplified by daily protests outside Villanova’s campus, featuring a large inflatable rat. Villanova responded to these protests by citing its “competitive bidding process” as a reason why union work was not prioritized for this project. 

The University’s decision to honor Smalls while electing not to employ union workers seems hypocritical. Villanova has spent multiple months privately engaged in contracts with nonunion labor, while union workers protest day in and day out. 

Now, Villanova is awarding a cash prize to one of the most famous labor organizers in the country. Villanova is simultaneously rejecting and celebrating organized labor. These actions do not communicate a united stance on labor unions and organized labor at the University. 

I wondered what Smalls might think about this and what we should do as students at Villanova in light of Villanova’s recent rejection and then celebration of organized labor. So I asked him, and he shared some critical thoughts. 

“[Villanova] hiring non-unionized work is deliberate,” Smalls said. “They know the difference because they know the pay increase. They know that unionized workers make roughly $12,000 more than non-unionized workers. This University has upwards of a couple billion in the bank. They’re saving money. That’s the exploitation that needs to be exposed.”

Support for union work in light of Villanova’s position was echoed by Tim Horner, Teaching Professor at the Center for Peace and Justice Education in the Augustine and Culture Seminar Program. 

“[The University is] only thinking of the Board of Directors,” Horner said. “They are not thinking of students.” 

Professor Horner expressed support not only for hiring union labor on campuses, but also for union organizing among student workers. He also pushed the idea that students should have much more of a say in whether the University hires non-union labor or union labor for campus projects. 

Emma Burns, president of the Global Social Justice Initiative on campus, agreed.

“I think the hypocrisy couldn’t be more obvious,” Burns said. “Villanova as a whole dismisses the student and employer voice (with the exception of a small population) while utilizing the same messages/ideals to provide Villanova with an image of progress.”

She remarked on the seeming break between pro-union and anti-union messaging from Villanova.

“Essentially it’s like saying, ‘Yeah we know you guys want us to hire unions. Here, how about a talk instead? That’s plenty, right?’” Burns said.

In response to a request for comment, the University issued a statement:

The University has had regular participation from union partners in projects on campus. When selecting the best partners for our construction projects, Villanova uses a competitive bidding process—which includes and encourages participation from union contractors and sub-contractors. Identifying the “best partner” means we seek to work with the most qualified contractors across a number of areas, including experience, training, safety record and capacity – in addition to financial considerations. Our decisions in this process reflect a commitment to the Augustinian Catholic mission and values of Villanova University. We ensure that all workers on our projects receive a just wage and benefits package. Villanova also has a fiduciary responsibility to prudently manage our financial resources and make decisions that are in the best interest of the University and the people it serves.

While this statement reveals what motivates decisions like these that the University must make, it still disappoints regarding a commitment to union support, especially in light of the choice to recognize Smalls. Moving past Villanova’s stance on union labor, Smalls expressed support for all current and future labor organizing efforts at Villanova. 

“This organizing is taking place on every campus. I’ll tell you that right now,” Smalls said. “Whenever organizing is going to take place here you have brothers and sisters in the neighborhood, on other campuses, that will show up on picket lines. If the word is out, if there is a call to action, I’ll even drive down. I live close enough.”

He affirmed the need for action at this moment.

“The time is now,” Smalls said. “Making sure that student voices are heard…Even if this is your last year, do it for the next person that’s going to be a freshman here so that they understand the issues before they even touch this campus and get involved early on.” 

This conversation of unionizing at Villanova is a difficult one but as Smalls explained, “That’s why we’ve got to see these conversations being had.”

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    Jack KochNov 10, 2023 at 11:11 am

    Villanova are hypocrites. Live your values, don’t just preach about them.