September 10, 2018

WU | Who Cares If Cornell Cares?

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Watchful pedestrians may have caught a glimpse of the stout black truck trundling across campus last month. Its exterior, a carnelian-red LED screen, bore the unmistakable words “Does Cornell Care?” Does it? Should it? Its screen flashed another image, this one depicting Touchdown holding a “Displaced” sign alongside the text “Over 100 Students Without Housing.” If Cornell cared, it was certainly doing a poor job of showing it.

Those responsible for the truck, the Tompkins-Cortland Building and Construction Trades Council, a local labor union, sought to right a wrong. The union’s gripe was over a graduate housing project, called Maplewood, that Cornell contracted out to EdR, a Tennessee construction firm. Cornell hired EdR to cut costs on Maplewood, which the University deemed a “low-end construction” project.

But the Maplewood project went awry, causing hold-ups and raising safety concerns. Some 106 graduate students were dislocated, though EdR compensated them. EdR, which supposedly specializes in collegiate construction, should be embarrassed.

Should Cornell? The unionists think so. Cornell has a collective-bargaining agreement requiring it to hire union workers. The unionists contend the University “circumvented” the agreement by contracting EdR; since Cornell did not itself build Maplewood, the agreement has no legal force. EdR claims it fell behind schedule because of labor shortages. But the unionists plausibly claim they were ready, willing and able to work. Cornell comes off looking short-sighted and perhaps two-faced.

And yet none of this has any bearing on whether Cornell “cares.” The University chose to hire a contractor to save money. The project was a flub. A minor scandal ensued.

For upcoming construction projects, like the 2,000-bed North Campus expansion, Cornell will either use local labor or it won’t. If it opts not to, the University risks getting burned by another out-of-state contractor. The resulting outrage would, one hopes, convince Cornell administrators to be leery of contracted labor. If not, that makes the administration incompetent, but not uncaring.

My point is that the unionists are distorting what matters. Choosing who will build an apartment complex should be an economic decision, not a moral one. Asking whether the University is “friendly to labor,” or whether its choices are fair to union workers, misses the point.

The moralizing language of “Does Cornell Care” is misguided for two reasons. First, it undermines the unionists’ own cause. And second, it obscures the best case for hiring local labor.

Start by considering what the unionists want: to be hired for future projects. By questioning whether Cornell cares, they hope to shame the University into doing so. Yet a hulking institution like Cornell will have a fickle capacity for caring. Put another way, even if Cornell cares now, it may not forever. The University will always have, however, oodles of institutional interests. Appealing to those interests is the unionists’ best shot at getting hired.

Next, the case for local labor. The University should hire whomever can build the best housing for the lowest cost. If that means out-of-state non-union labor, so be it. But if Cornell values the local economic boon brought by employing Ithaca labor — as it should — then hire local. An economically vibrant Ithaca is in Cornell’s self-interest. Its students and faculty benefit from enhanced amenities, and a well-funded local government will likely take it easy on the University’s tax ledger.

Conversely, an Ithaca wracked with unemployed workers is against Cornell’s self-interest. Crime would tick up. So too would opioid abuse. Cornell would tumble down the all-important college tier lists — many of which assess the local environment in rankings. As such, the University has a clear medium-term interest in employing as many Ithacans as feasible.

In fairness, the unionists do attempt to make their own economic case. On the merits, it is convincing. They point out EdR’s myriad failures, including some alarming safety violations. They highlight the spillover costs of Maplewood. They allude to several previous scandals with local contractors. Union labor looks impressive by comparison.

The unionists have legitimate complaints worth redressing. Cornell has no business doing business with EdR after its botched Maplewood project. The University should fulfill its commitment to employ local labor for the North Campus expansion — because it is the superior option, no matter whether it is the “caring” one.

It’s a shame, then, that the unionists’ compelling case is eclipsed by their moral framing of the issue. Claims about Cornell’s insufficient friendliness to labor are overblown. But if the best-equipped electricians, steamfitters, plumbers, welders and carpenters are in the University’s backyard, that is something about which Cornell should care.

Ethan Wu is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Discourse and Discord runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at ewu@cornellsun.com.