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Rat visits General Theological Seminary

Rat visits General Theological Seminary

In a scenario similar to one experienced by the Episcopal Church Center, General Theological Seminary was visited by a giant inflatable rat according to DNAinfo:

Workers who claim they were fired by the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary after more than two decades of service have taken their protest to the streets — erecting a giant protest rat in front of the building.

The five maintenance workers say they lost their jobs at the General Theological Seminary late last month. The workers, who are all members of the Service Employees Union 32BJ, had been with the seminary for decades, but said they were given letters on Thursday, July 27 notifying them that their jobs would end on Tuesday, July 31….

Maia Davis, a spokeswoman for 32BJ, said the union has lawyers looking into whether the seminary violated a city law giving building service workers 90 days of protection against layoffs if a building changes contractors. The men were officially employed by Aramark, a maintenance contracting company for schools and universities.

The workers had originally been employed directly by the seminary until Aramark was brought on in 2009, Davis added. The seminary agreed that any new contractors would continue to employ the same workers with the same wages and benefits.

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The President of General Theological Seminary, the Rev. Lang Lowrey consented to an interview with The Lead.

According to Lowrey General Seminary had in the past decided to outsource building maintenance to Aramark. GTS notified Aramark that due to the sale of most of the buildings GTS would be terminating the contract. Aramark was notified months ago of this pending change and has as yet, to Lowrey’s knowledge, not placed the workers in other open positions of the company in the New York area.

GTS had no agreement in the contract with Aramark “that any new contractors would continue to employ the same workers with the same wages and benefits.” According to what Lowrey was told, “one reason for the outsourcing ( at that time) was to provide those employees which Aramark hired with a potential career path greater than GTS , given that Aramark is a big maintenance company with much opportunity. This is one reason why GTS is so disappointed that the Aramark ex- employees have not been transfered to other Aramark locations.”

Lowrey and GTS supports the protest and has been advocating for the former employees of Aramark who worked at GTS, asking Aramark why they have not been placed elsewhere and praying for the workers daily. The President of GTS has contacted Aramark about this issue almost weekly but there has been no reply.

President Lowrey took over the leadership of GTS in the midst of a severe economic crisis at the seminary when it appeared that the school might not survive. His charge has been to save the school. Selling buildings has resulted in a much smaller need for employees. Work is done on an as needed basis by part-time non-union workers. Lowrey states, “The sale of buildings is at the root of the termination of Aramark and we are disappointed that they have not continued the employment of their employees.”

What questions do you have about this story?

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Chris Hansen

Governments and private companies as well as religious institutions have been outsourcing support staff jobs for decades. The impetus seems to be in most cases a desire to keep their own management skills for what they do best: if you make chairs, you concentrate on making chairs, and outsource your IT, financial, and cleaning and property maintenance to organisations that do those things well. That's the theory, anyway.

There is a local borough in North London that has been accused of becoming a "skeleton borough", in that they have outsourced almost every function to an outside contractor. Trash pickup is by a private contractor. Traffic enforcement is by a private contractor. IT services, including tax collection, is by a private contractor.

What private companies do is for them to decide; the consequences of their actions need to fall on themselves and their shareholders or private owners. But what a governmental organisation or a religious institution does has a greater dimension that ought to be taken into account when considering outsourcing.

Reputational risk (see Giles Fraser's column in last week's Church Times) is a real danger when a charitable or religious organisation outsources functions. While the employees and their functions are controlled by an outside organisation, what happens to those employees and their functions will be connected to the religious organisation no matter how much they protest that it is only their contractor who is laying off workers/cutting their benefits or pay. That is what is happening at General.

The only good way to avoid this situation is not to outsource in the first place. Religious and charitable organisations are not, on the whole, factories. Outsourcing to save money means, for these institutions, turning a blind eye to how the contractors mean to make a profit out of the activity. Laying off workers, cutting their benefits or their pay or both is the way that most outsourcers make money out of a contract. If the religious organisation wants to have a just resolution to an outsourced contract problem, this dilemma has to be addressed: how to treat your employees justly and fairly while outsourcing their function to a for-profit organisation.

And yes, layoffs and "downsizing", "rightsizing", or just plain constructive dismissal is part of working life. That does not mean that in order to squeeze a few more pence out of a contract to benefit shareholders companies should be limiting hours, or pay, or benefits,or laying off people simply for economic gain.

These are all difficult questions. I do not pretend to have good answers. But surely the Gospel imperative is to treat everyone fairly and justly no matter their station in life. If "ethical outsourcing" is possible, that is what ought to be done.

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tgflux

Oh dear. I hear good Episcopalians all digitally yelling at each other on this thread. I really don't know who's right . . . so I can only offer prayers. May we be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

JC Fisher

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John B. Chilton

GTS has sold buildings and it makes no sense to maintain the same size maintenance staff. Their highest and best value is employment elsewhere.

It seems plausible to me, though, that some time in the past a person in authority at GTS might have given the workers some verbal assurances about the security of their jobs. For example, when GTS first switched to outsourcing that change could have created stress for the workers and someone at GTS might have said some soothing words. Sometimes being direct is the kindest policy. Again, this is merely a conjecture, but it's a question I have.

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Maplewood

We are seeing the issues here with outsourcing of employees, and making employees "contractors".

Outsourcing is not always moving jobs over-seas. It also is moving jobs to "service companies", such as Aramark. And it's fraught with issues.

The employer often moves to a contrator model because they simply can't afford all their former employees. Either they down-zize or die. The former employee who is now a contractor ultimately feels betrayed, particularly when their new employment with the contract company means less money and less autonomy. The contract company just sees this as "another deal" and plows ahead, doing what they do.

No one looks real good in these things, particularly if the relationships have been long term. The employees would better serve themselves if they spent their time looking for new employment, not street theater. Striking for better wages/et al is one thing, street theater to embarrass your former employer is another.

Aramark's silence is not all that sinister in this story. Here they have a few new contract workers, and the first thing they do is engage in street theater with a customer. I'm not so sure they look like desirable employees?

Kevin McGrane

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Michael Mornard

"Phoney baloney"? Do tell? If the maintenance workers were employed by Aramark, not GTS, then how could they be fired by GTS? How can you be fired by somebody whom you don't work for? That's a really good trick!

You also have to add in the fact that Aramark is looking for people in other parts of Manhattan. They did not HAVE to let the GTS workers go. GTS was TOLD this would be done by Aramark back in July. This was a deliberate move by Aramark to pressure the seminary into renewing the contract; it's a simple variation on the old "poison pill" defense.

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