In Hiring Contractors, College Takes Everything Into Account–But the Most Important Factor

UN_CONSTRUCTION

Last Thursday’s Phoenix shed some light on the cryptic “Shame on Swarthmore College” banner that has hung outside the SEPTA station since early this summer. In construction of the Matchbox, the new theater and athletic space under construction near the Field House, Swarthmore has apparently committed the egregious error of hiring a contractor that uses non-union labor. Time to go to the barricades.

Stu Hain, Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects, provided some sound reasoning for why the College chose not to use unionized labor for this particular project. From the Phoenix:

“The trickiest issue would have probably been around installation of the skin on the top of the building,” he said, referring to the red cement panels on the Matchbox’s rooftop. If the school had hired unionized workers, he said, there would have been a struggle about how many different trades would have to be involved in that process.

Now, the various tasks necessary to install the panels can be done with one group, as opposed to several.

“There is more flexibility,” Hain said.

The College has not escaped the clutches of social justice warriors, however. From Monday’s Daily Gazette:

When asked about the Shame on Swarthmore union campaign, the administrators noted that the contracting company awarded the Matchbox bid hires a mix of union and non-union labor — and that this piece of information was taken into account during the bidding process. Additionally, the College is in the midst of implementing a plan to give firms owned by women, minority, or disabled individuals an advantage in the bidding process, which will hopefully give these firms a 10% leeway in terms of their bids.

Strangely absent from the discussion is any mention of the track records of the contractors, and whether they can get the jobs done on time for a reasonable price. The College has essentially advertised that it will pay a 10 percent premium over the fair value of contracting so it can pay homage to vague notions of social justice—hardly sound financial reasoning. And we wonder why tuition approaches $60,000 a year.

Instead of seeking to check certain boxes (woman-owned, minority-owned, unionized) unrelated to performance, the College ought to prioritize the most important factor: whether the company can do what we’re hiring them to do.

With the College squeezing extra students into dorm rooms not designed to fit them, it is imperative to finish construction of projects like the Danawell expansion on schedule. The College is developing a back-up plan in case the weather pushes completion of the new building past fall 2015, when new students will swell the size of the student body and further burden our already-strained housing resources. Foremost among the College’s considerations should be hiring a contractor that can complete the expansion on time, come hell or high water. We’d like to know where this ranks on the list of priorities.

When the College pays more to hire contractors that adhere to certain constraints, it is necessarily able to spend less on other worthy ventures—paying employees well, supporting student life, or reducing the burden of tuition on hardworking families. The best thing for the College and our community would be making efficiency our foremost consideration.

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