My testimony opposing JHU’s private police bill

Testimony Opposing HB1094 / SB793
Maryland House and Senate Judiciary Committees
Corey Payne, Graduate Student at Johns Hopkins University
February 22, 2019

My name is Corey Payne. I am a sociology Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University, an alumnus of JHU’s undergraduate program, and a six-year resident of Baltimore’s 43rd district. I am testifying today to strongly urge the delegation to oppose HB1094/SB793. Private institutions, no matter their import, should not be permitted to establish armed private police forces.

As a student, my university has encouraged a sense of solidarity with my peers and my Baltimore neighbors that leads me to have grave concerns about the marked increase in danger for students of color, non-affiliate community members, and the majority Black service work force at Hopkins. Despite promises that the JHU private police force would overcome implicit biases, I have seen no evidence of JHU’s ability to accomplish this with other affiliates (such as staff, faculty, and students) despite their many years of efforts. I fear that a private police force would unduly target individuals who did not “appear to belong” to the Hopkins community. I have witnessed JHU security ask a Black visiting faculty member why he was in his office after business hours. I remember receiving a “shelter in place” order on the day after the first protests following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, when three non-affiliated Black boys with bicycles dared to wander onto our “open” campus. I remember sitting in meetings following this incident in the Office of Multicultural Affairs where my Black friends and peers discussed the need to wear JHU-logoed shirts and sweatshirts to avoid similar encounters. As a student, I do not trust Johns Hopkins to create a private police force that would overcome racial profiling.

As a social scientist, my university has taught me to value evidence and reject the idea that the simplest solution is always the best one. While my own research is not on policing, this bill has forced many of us to read more deeply about crime-prevention and police. There is no scholarly consensus that increasing the number of police increases the safety of residents. In most crimes, police are not present until after the incident is over. Visible police presence generally focuses on minor crimes that do not harm individuals but offend the sensibilities of property-owners. Moreover, the largest proportion of crimes involving JHU affiliates are alcohol violations and sexual assault. These crimes are largely perpetrated by JHU affiliates against JHU affiliates. The university largely frames this private police force as if it were guarding a fortress (JHU) against an enemy (Baltimore), when the evidence does not support that perspective. Despite JHU’s fear-mongering, the public data available shows a decrease in crime around both the Homewood and East Baltimore campuses. As a social scientist, it is not clear to me that drastic solutions such as this one need are needed—or even that there is a crime problem to be solved.

As a researcher, my university has taught me the importance of ethical conduct, of the unbiased presentation of evidence, and of good faith interactions. In this regard, I have been disappointed to see Johns Hopkins fail to live up to the standards it expects of its students and researchers. The university administration has continued to publicly declare that it has received “mostly positive feedback” on this bill, despite overwhelming opposition. 75% of undergraduates oppose the bill, according to a poll by the student government. Over one hundred faculty members have signed a letter in opposition. Student organizers have over 2,600 signatures on a petition. One large on-campus labor union and the plurality of adjacent neighborhood associations oppose this measure. The administration cites a single survey of only 96 individuals (students, staff, faculty, and community residents) to support its claim to “largely positive feedback.” That’s bad research practice. At forums which JHU purportedly held to discuss this police force proposal, there was little open discussion. Johns Hopkins instead used these events to try to sell community members and affiliates on the idea of a private police force. Yet now, JHU cites these as listening sessions—as if the university leaders’ minds were not already made up a year ago. What’s more, the decision to pair state authorization of this private police force with state funding for youth programs is cynical and deceitful. This money would fund anchor institutions (like JHU) and only indirectly fund Baltimore’s children. Any expansion of Johns Hopkins power—such as the establishment of a private police force—should be accompanied by an expansion of Johns Hopkins’ duties to the community. That starts with paying taxes to fund programs like these. Johns Hopkins University has acted with bad research practice, with disingenuity, and with bad faith. As a researcher, I’m compelled to condemn my university’s conduct.

Finally, as a citizen of Baltimore, my largest concerns come from the privatization of state functions and the lack of accountability to the community. This bill, as written, is anti-democratic. The bill does not provide any true measures to hold JHU accountable to the communities it will be policing. The university will appoint the overwhelming majority of the members to the so-called accountability board. The board itself, as written, is largely toothless—only able to suggest changes to JHU’s private police force and without any means to oversee or enforce the conduct of officers. There is no mechanism to sanction or punish JHU—or abolish the private police force—if it fails to comply with any of the specifications in this bill. Private institutions like Hopkins are not compelled to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, and recent scandals such as the failure to address reports of sexual assault demonstrate JHU’s inability to faithfully report data. Perhaps most stunning about this bill is the remarkable lack of clarity regarding the boundaries of operation for this private police force. The bill’s language is imprecise and, if Clery Act boundaries are followed, would allow for Hopkins to police the city largely without limits, as JHU purchases new properties each year. In truth, this private police force would be accountable only to the university president and the unelected board of trustees. As a citizen, I strongly oppose a panel of out-of-state multi-millionaires dictating Baltimore’s policing policies.

In the six years that I have been a student at Johns Hopkins, I have watched my university make harmful decisions regarding some of the most pressing issues of our time. On workers rights, on climate change, on immigration, on addressing racism, and on justice for sexual assault victims, Johns Hopkins has time and again decided to take the expeditious and lucrative road at the expense of its students, workers, and neighbors. I believe this bill is another example of Johns Hopkins staking a claim on the wrong side of history. In the end, this bill amounts to JHU saying: “Trust us.” Trust us to be accountable. Trust us to overcome racism. Trust us to carry guns. Trust us to respect the citizens of Baltimore and their rights. While I appreciate the good things Johns Hopkins does, I cannot in good conscious trust my university with an armed private police force. As a student, a social scientist, a researcher, and a citizen, I strongly urge all representatives—especially my own from the 43rd district—to do the right thing for Baltimore and oppose this bill. Thank you.

Johns Hopkins, ICE, and the Militarized University

Mira Wattal, Emeline Armitage, and I got the old Hopkins SDS band back together last week for an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun regarding the recent revelations that JHU has been collaborating with ICE–to the tune of (at least) $10 million–since 2009.

While any left-of-center citizen worth their salt has already come around to the idea that collaboration with the deportation force is morally bankrupt and that ICE needs to be abolished, we attempted to lay out in this op-ed the ways this new-found development is linked to other militarized practices at Hopkins.

While you may have been surprised at first to see JHU in the list of the largest Maryland ICE-profiteers, a closer examination of Hopkins’ record shows this is simply standard procedure for a university bent on increasing militarization. Johns Hopkins is one of the largest academic contractors of the Department of Defense and has long been an engineer of the military’s deadliest weapons, from missiles in World War II to assassination drones in the War on Terror. JHU recently received a contract for nearly $1 billion for the development of nuclear weapons technologies. On a more local scale, Hopkins caused a controversy this past spring for attempting to push a bill through the state legislature that would allow the university to create its own armed police force — something unheard of for a private entity in the state of Maryland. While public opinion and student-led organizing forced the withdrawal of the measure this past spring, Hopkins will almost certainly try again in the next legislative session.

[Read the whole op-ed here]

But there are two tendencies of militarization happening here at JHU. The first is good old-fashioned war-profiteering: the DOD’s weapons contracts and ICE’s leadership development programs fit in here. This is the standard of universities and companies across the board; A violent organization (like the U.S. military or deportation services) requires bureaucratic collaboration and ‘R&D’ in order to maintain and innovate. Hopkins just wants a piece of the vile pie.

The second is a stunning change: the establishment of a private police force. This moves from ‘simple’ war-profiteering into the realm of state-like behavior. Max Weber defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

If JHU gets its way, from Calvert Street and 29th to University Parkway and 39th, the new user of physical force may wear a JHU badge, not a BPD one. The implications of this have been much debated in spaces on this campus and at others where similar moves are being made. The most important, in my view, is the near-certainty that JHU will use violence against both its “citizens” (affiliates) and against “the other”: Baltimoreans.

These two tendencies are, of course, inter-related. That’s the entire point of our op-ed. They’re driven by the same broader social forces: As neoliberal austerity continues to rear its head and sources of funding dry up, the formerly-small shares of budgets coming from militarized sources start to loom large. And, as any who study recent U.S. history know, there is never a shortage of funding when it comes to military spending.

As places like Hopkins become more dependent upon militarized spending, as weapons research matches cancer research in the workers’ consciousness, the new norms are violent ones.

As economic deprivation (stemming from similar processes as militarization-through-austerity) drives the working class to revolt–in a myriad of ways, from the Baltimore Uprising to an uptick in crime–institutions like Hopkins feel the need to protect themselves.

The new norm of omnipresent weaponization and the renewed threat of working class revolt converge: the only logical solution is a unconstrained, weaponized entity to protect people and property; A private police can save the day.

Thus it is not just in outcomes (i.e. increased militarization) that these tendencies are related. It is also in driving forces. At least in part, both the increase in university reliance on military spending and the apparent need to protect oneself against the public stem from recent political-economic developments.

So what?

To me, this points out the need to tackle all of these elements together.

With the public uproar and anti-deportation sentiment of the current moment, it will (hopefully) be fairly straightforward to force Hopkins’ hand in ending their collaboration with ICE. A petition to that effect has already gathered nearly a thousand signatures.

But without tackling both the university’s dependence on military funding and the university’s desire to protect itself from the working class, they will simply find more ways to maneuver into other violent and immoral activities.

[For example, the expansion of the university’s ‘special security forces’ following student-led opposition to the private police bill. The university expanded its contracting of armed off-duty officers in a loophole circumventing both the will of the community and the decision of the Maryland State legislature.]

This is easier said than done. It requires recognizing that, while we are most effective in our struggle at the local level, the broader political-economic configuration is constraining the options available to us–and to Hopkins. So while we demand an end to DOD contracts, ICE-profiteering, and armed private guards, we must also imagine how to overcome the conditions which created this status quo.

And on that hopeful note, I leave you with a note from one of our many fans:


Thanks for your feedback, Mimi.

A Self-Critique in Defense of Cuba

Two years ago, I wrote my first article in Jacobin Magazine. I had naively drafted it part way through my first extended stay in Havana, before I had fully understood the imperial power dynamics undergirding my relation to the revolution. The main problem discussed in the article is, in my current view, still relevant: the turn towards openness with the global capitalist system has left the Cuban socialist project vulnerable. This was something that the Cuban revolution will have to reckon with, and something that socialists in the imperial core should be aware of.

But the way I elaborated that point was wrong. In a simplistic classification of dissidents with anarchist tendencies as “the Left” and the Cuban Communist Party as the “authoritarian state,” I obscured the complex reality that is Cuban socialism. I also, in a small way, contributed to the imperial project of undermining the Cuban revolution through delegitimization. I implied it was not true to the Marxist-Leninist values that is purports to represent; I should have been more careful with my analysis.

We have seen that “takes” such as this have been explicitly used to undermine revolutionary movements and parties throughout the Global South—most recently, an article in Jacobin Magazine condemning the Bolivarian Revolution and Telesur was cited by the right-wing opposition to undermine the legitimacy of the press and the government of Venezuela. This is a concerning trend of which socialists in the imperial core must be aware and actively defend against.

We should make every effort to learn from the successes and failures of socialist projects around the world—a task that undoubtedly requires the identification of their failures. But to do so without an understanding of the underlying imperial power dynamics is dangerous.

Our commitment to the defense of socialist experiments in the Global South from imperial attacks must always come before our desire to critique those experiments.

In this spirit, I want to briefly address the challenge I raised in the original article: Cuban socialism faces an uncertain future given the willingness of leaders to open the doors to foreign capital– a complicated move that has been debated at length both in the island and among the global left. As this process unfolds, how can Cuban socialism be revitalized in the twenty-first century, instead of re-incorporated?

Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes: “If [Cuba’s] problems are solved within a socialist framework, Cuba may once again become an agent for the renovation of the Left . . . bringing about a different kind of socialism from the one that failed in the twentieth century.” The sources of failure of Actually Existing Socialism were undoubtedly more external than not. Still, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the gradual turn towards the market in China, Vietnam, and Cuba, we are faced with a challenge that twentieth century socialism has been unable to solve.

But there is evidence to suggest that the Cuban revolutionary government acknowledges this challenge, despite its turn towards the market. Cliff Durand, writing in the Monthly Review, explains one example better than I could:

Today, as the Cuban Revolution moves away from the centrally administered state socialism of the last century, its leaders are seeking to socialize their institutions in a new way. Although in the 1960s the new Cuban government reclaimed the resources of society from capitalism, it did not fully socialize them. Instead, the state stepped in as the agent of society, in effect removing the people from active participation. A paternalistic state provided universal free health care and education, along with secure employment, and in return, the people gave the state their loyalty. But they have remained passive participants, rather than protagonists in a participatory democracy, shaping their own destiny. As a result, by the end of the twentieth century, it was civil society, rather than the state, that threatened to wither away.

Now the Cuban state is devolving power downward, to local levels of government and to cooperatives. While most property remains state-owned, where possible, its management is being transferred to those in actual possession of property. With management thus separated from ownership, the operation of small enterprises is placed in the hands of collectives of workers. Following the principle of “subsidiarity,” daily decisions are to be made at lower levels, with the support or supervision of higher levels where necessary. Through these reforms, the Cuban state is recreating democracy from the base of society upward, and the constituted power of the state is facilitating the constituent power of civil society.

Two striking elements emerge from reading this passage: one on process, one on content.

First, on process: Durand expertly assesses a shortcoming of the Cuban revolution (“the state stepped in as the agent of society, in effect removing the people from active participation”) without condemnation.

Second, on content: the Cuban state is actively working to revitalize socialism in Cuba. This implies an acknowledgement that the socialism of the twentieth century is no longer sufficient in the twenty-first.

None of this is to say that we should blindly support the actions of (any) government, or that we shouldn’t critically assess Cuban socialism. We must if we are to learn how to replicate and expand its many successes. It is only to say that, as the above passage demonstrates, we can approach this critique without doing harm and without falling into hypocrisy.

Importantly, our critical assessment must not result in lecturing, scolding, or prescribing. The purpose of critical assessment must be to further our own anti-capitalist project, not “perfect” or “purify” another’s. Socialists in the Global South don’t need our critiques—they’re doing just fine on their own. We should focus instead where our energy is best served—at reducing the violence of global capitalism, centered here in the imperial core.

Thanks to Emeline Armitage for her comments on this post

The University as a Space—and a Tool—for Left Organizing

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” These opening words of the Port Huron Statement defined a student movement for a generation that would become known for both its vision for a better world and its activism to make it a reality. This “Agenda for a Generation” was one of the longest, most ambitious, most detailed, and most eloquent manifesto of the American left in the twentieth century—written by undergraduate students sensing an impending revolutionary moment. The movement that followed—with participation from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others—brought the concept of “participatory democracy” into leftist discourse and identified the struggles against racism and against war as the defining fights of their time. The document and the movement are described as foundational moments in the development of the New Left.

Undoubtedly the movements of that era were successful when they incorporated the systematically oppressed and exploited beyond the halls of universities—the struggles could not have survived on student participation alone. As Freddie DeBoer and Amber A’Lee Frost have recently pointed out, it is important for the left to recognize the necessity of broad based movements and the centrality of workers in the struggle. Their primary argument is not debatable: the university cannot be the only site of radical organizing. But as the SDS Agenda for a Generation shows us, university organizing can also be formative and guiding. While universities by their very nature cannot be the primary site of left organizing, many of these same features cause them still to be important sites of left organizing. Instead of abandoning them or reducing their importance in our organizing, we must use them to our advantage.


Hubs for Organizing

Universities must remain important sites of our struggle for two main reasons, one which was true of SDS and SNCC in the 1960s and one which has emerged as a result of the political and economic projects of the late twentieth century. First, universities serve as an entrepot—a hub in which easily organized groups of people are omnipresent. Second, universities have become “anchor institutions” in many cities since the 1970s—playing key roles in (under)development projects and carrying disproportionate weight in local politics. Having strong radical organizations within the belly of the beasts has proven useful in affecting communities beyond the campus borders.

The centrality of young people to our struggle has been long recognized. As Frantz Fanon wrote: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” He writes that we must learn and respect the fighters in generations which came before us, but acknowledge our own role in the continuation of the struggle. Molding activists when they are young proves easier too—when people arrive at college, or the workplace, at age 17 or 18, they come with their political persuasions still in flux. As is the case with countless students, arriving at school as a liberal, and then being organized, often results in the embrace of revolutionary socialism by the end of undergraduate careers. The youth, then, are an indispensable group for our organizing. And, in the most basic way, universities are important because the presence of young people in one place creates an ideal environment for this organizing. Just as union organizers would agree that organizing workers in a single workplace is easier than organizing those spread around several locations, the same is true of students. Not only does it take less effort to reach more people, the social and discursive nature of universities yields greater turnout for similar effort.

This is not to say that organizing students is sufficient—as DeBoer points out, only 7.5% of the U.S. population is regularly on a university campus. But rather to say that it is a necessary part of our struggle. University populations are increasingly energetic in demanding justice and equity. The inspiring unionization drives by graduate student workers since the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decision to classify graduate student teachers and researchers as employees, the conflicts between administrations and faculty that have often escalated to movement-building moments, and the upsurge in undergraduate student activism linked to Black Lives Matter and labor unions all create momentum that we must seize upon and therefore lend credence to the argument that universities should remain a central space for revolutionary organizing.


Fighting the Beast from Inside It

The presence of organizable populations alone may be enough to see the university as a valuable site for socialist movements, but the outsized role universities have played in the underdevelopment of their surrounding communities over the past quarter century (or longer) make organizing these populations even more critical. Universities often are some of the largest employers in their cities and states—and their long-standing resistance to paying living wages and providing adequate benefits has resulted in vast inequalities between the university elites (faculty and administrators) and low wage university workers (often subcontracted staff in food service, security, and janitorial services). This is combined with other, structural aspects of university-led underdevelopment: “Eds and Meds” (universities and hospitals) became “anchor institutions” in cities across the United States. Beginning in the late-1950s, universities began to promote “urban renewal” projects dedicated to “improving” the neighborhoods surrounding campuses. These developments resulted in the displacement of local residents and the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods. These projects often altered their shapes during the neoliberal era, but the effects have been the same: dispossession and segregation.

In many places, such as Baltimore, behemoth institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and its health system became one of the largest investors in urban ‘development’ and emerged as the largest non-state employer in Maryland. The development projects planned by Hopkins—in concert with the City government and others—in the early and late 2000s faced swift resistance by community organizations. But the organizing by neighborhood groups was largely unsuccessful, and the development project went along anyway—resulting in the dispossession of over 2,000 residential homes in East Baltimore. At the same time, a coalition of workers and students within the Hopkins institution (organized and supported by prominent scholars such as David Harvey and Noam Chomsky, respectively) were fighting for living wages. Working together, this coalition was able to pressure the university administration through public humiliation and direct confrontation. After a prolonged struggle, the workers were successful and the university committed to wage increases. The success of the internal struggle for better working conditions and wages along with the failure of the external struggle against underdevelopment suggests that organizing within the university against the university’s role in the project may have been more fruitful.

This is a strategy that is currently being taken up by student organizations, workers unions, and equitable development advocates in Baltimore—and has been met with some degree of success. In addition to teaming up for equality for subcontracted workers at Johns Hopkins, these groups (which count among them two large workers unions, the campus Black Student Union, and the chapter of the new SDS) are currently pushing for broader changes—such as better workers’ protection policies in Baltimore City as a whole and more equitable housing development policies from Johns Hopkins. This strategy of pushing Hopkins from within—and pushing the City government and other stakeholders from without—successfully resulted in the recent passing of a displaced worker protection ordinance in Baltimore.

This victory, significant yet small, signals that this strategy could be used to win other battles against underdevelopment in which universities play a key role but are not necessarily themselves the primary site of struggle. In this way, building strong left movements on campuses—among workers, faculty, and students alike—can have tangible results beyond the boundaries of the universities themselves. As primary stakeholders in university actions, these populations make powerful allies—particularly undergraduate students, who serve as important sources of revenue for colleges and universities. It is obvious that simultaneously fighting ‘in the belly of the beast’ and outside of it gives more opportunities for the success of left movements.


A Space and a Tool

Universities, then, are both important spaces and tools for our organizing. The space of a campus allows for easy access, and the populations of students and workers on it are groups traditionally most open to anti-systemic ideas. Moreover, influencing power centers within universities themselves—notably students and faculty—allows for more sites of struggle when conflicts arise in broader communities. In this way, left organizing on campuses becomes an important tool for influencing the trajectories of community development and for engaging in harm reduction on local scales.

For these reasons, ongoing calls to de-emphasize universities in our struggles are well-intentioned, but misguided. While there is no doubt a tremendous need to emphasize workers’ struggles—and primarily low-wage, vulnerable, and informal ones at that—allowing university organizing to fall by the wayside will prove to be a strategic error. Centering the most vulnerable groups of people in our organizing does not require ignoring other critical spaces and tools. So long as universities play a role in the underdevelopment of their communities, there will remain a need to fight them on many fronts. For this reason, we must continue to work on and with university campuses. And, like in the struggles of the last century, we may just find clarifying voices and visions for a better world along the way.

Testimony to Baltimore City Council

Today I testified before the City Council supporting the Displaced Workers Protection Ordinance. This bill would give contracted service workers the guarantee of continued employment when contractors change. This is a policy we have been fighting for at Johns Hopkins for a year, with little progress. I’m glad to have been a part of the bill’s unanimous passing in the Labor Committee. It now heads to the full Council, which will vote on it by the middle of June.

Here is a transcript of my testimony:

Thank you, Madam Chair. My name is Corey Payne and I have been a student at Johns Hopkins University for four years. It is clear to all of us on campus that subcontracted workers are important members of our community. In addition to the outstanding services that they always provide, they are regular, friendly faces in a university environment that often offers too few. As a freshman, I remember looking forward to my meals in the dining hall because I had developed friendships with many of the workers there. They would ask me how my day was going, how I did on the exam I had that morning, or why I wasn’t there yesterday for lunch. They looked out for me and made me feel like part of a community. One of the standard aspects of dorm living at Hopkins is getting to know which security officers guard which buildings and who has shifts at your own front door. In my sophomore year, I would pick up a soda from the dining hall on my way home every Wednesday for the officer out front. She had a long shift that evening and had worked all day at her second job beforehand. She always had a story or a joke; she was happy to see us even during her toughest days. She made us feel safe and at home.

These types of stories are not unique to me. Countless students have built relationships with the contract workers at Hopkins. Having people around who know you and know the campus makes you feel at home even when you are thousands of miles away, maybe for the first time. This familiarity is of the utmost importance to us and it is one of the main reasons why more than one thousand students at Johns Hopkins have signed petitions, attended demonstrations, and volunteered their time over the past year with the Student-Labor Action Coalition, or SLAC. SLAC is currently pressuring the university administration to implement policies giving contract workers greater equality with direct employees. One of SLAC’s goals, which has received this widespread support from the student body, is displaced worker protection.

This goal emerged out of a situation in the summer of 2016 where the university administration threatened to change security contractors, as Officer Summerville already spoke about. This change put the jobs and the newly earned healthcare benefits of security workers at risk. Suddenly, the futures for hundreds of employees and members of the Hopkins community were uncertain. Students worked together with the security officers’ union to fight back against the change. We were ultimately successful, but currently nothing is preventing a similar situation from arising in the future. With a displaced worker protection policy enacted, Hopkins would have been able to switch contract companies without threatening the jobs of hundreds of security officers. Such a policy would have allowed for workers to continue in their roles in our community while also offering Hopkins the freedom to choose a company that best meets its needs.

SLAC is currently collecting survey data from contract workers at Hopkins. While the study is still ongoing, we have found that nearly all of the contract workers are Black Baltimoreans. In a city and at a university with strong legacies of racism and classism, this bill presents an opportunity to begin to right an historical wrong.

On behalf of the over one thousand Johns Hopkins students who have supported our efforts, I strongly urge you to pass this bill. Doing so would give workers more certainty in their employment, guarantee greater stability in their incomes, and ensure that the communities we have built together will not be disrupted at a moment’s notice.

Thank you.

My Publications from 2016

I stole this idea from a journalist friend who writes WAY more than I do– you can check out her great list here— but I thought this would be a nice way to reflect on my studies and struggles throughout the year. Here is a list of the articles that I am proudest of this year:

1) The School of Subcontracting
I wrote about the struggles of unionized subcontracted security guards at Johns Hopkins whose employment, union, and benefits were under attack from the university administration. In Jacobin Magazine.

2) Reentry Through Resistance
The counter-narrative of US-Cuba détente, which was accomplished through resistance and solidarity, not “imperial benevolence,” is often left out of mainstream punditry. I wrote about it in CounterPunch Magazine.

3) After the Blockade
I analyzed the current challenges of the Cuban left, both inside and outside of the Communist Party. These stem from newly opened doors to Western capitalism as well as the state, which cracks down on leftist dissent as much as its reactionary counterpart. In Jacobin Magazine.

4) JHU efforts to cut a union company raises doubts about its commitment to Baltimore
Johns Hopkins attempted to cut a unionized subcontractor this summer, and many of us banded together to stop it. This op-ed in The Baltimore Sun proved instrumental to our success, putting pressure on the university. It is co-authored with two friends and fellow travelers.

5) After last week, we need to keep fighting against injustice
This last piece is a little lower impact. Posted in The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, this short op-ed summarizes the excellent activism happening at Johns Hopkins and calls on students to continue the struggle. But at a school that has been historically apathetic, the activism of the past two years has been inspiring.

Happy New Year!

The School of Subcontracting

This article originally appeared in Jacobin Magazine on 10/25/16

The School of Subcontracting

Universities use subcontracting to distance themselves from their low-wage employees’ needs.

by Corey Payne

The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decision to classify graduate student teachers and researchers as employees in addition to students — granting them the right to employee protections and unionization — is the most recent in a string of developments focusing the Left’s attention on colleges and universities. From unionized faculty being locked out of their classrooms, to a professor on hunger strike after having his tenure unilaterally vetoed by the university president, to the rise of undergraduate movements parallel with Black Lives Matter, the university remains an important arena for class struggle.

But often overlooked in this struggle is low-wage university labor, including janitorial, dining hall, and security staff. While all members of university life have been affected by the neoliberalization of academia, it is often these workers who have been dealt the harshest hand. University administrations have pursued cost-cutting measures like subcontracting and slashing wages and benefits with gusto.

Facing a rising tide of unionization and collective action, universities are also resorting to blatant efforts to push unions out. This is what was attempted this summer at Johns Hopkins University. In the north of Baltimore, Hopkins is one of Maryland’s largest employers and considers itself an important “anchor institution” in the city.

Hopkins president Ron Daniels — popular with the Board of Trustees for his continued push for higher university rankings and lower costs — loudly and frequently claims “So goes Baltimore, so goes Hopkins.” But Daniels’s efforts to “save” the city often run counter to the needs of working people in Baltimore. This was made starkly apparent in recent months, when Daniel’s administration tried to cut ties with the local security guards’ union.

Pushing Out a Union

Two years ago, the employees of Allied Universal — a security guard firm that is contracted by Johns Hopkins University — unionized with the SEIU local 32BJ. After unionizing, the workers — specifically the security guards patrolling Hopkins’s Baltimore campus — won health benefits for the first time. Joining in the SEIU’s national push, the local has since been struggling for an increase in wages (which are currently below the costs of living) and the provision of additional benefits. The newly won health-care coverage, a big victory, was set to begin in January 2017.
But this summer, Johns Hopkins decided to open the contract for campus security to companies other than Allied Universal — many of which are not unionized. According to union representatives, the contract process was tailored away from Allied Universal and towards a different, nonunion company with close ties to Hopkins called Broadway Services.

Suddenly, the security guards were not only looking at losing their newly won benefits and possibly their union — they were facing the prospect of losing their jobs. The official administrative line from Hopkins is that the move represented a “performance review,” but many saw it as a thinly veiled attempt to remove a union whose gains were beginning to cut into the university’s bottom line.

The union quickly responded in a push to keep the contract — and the union — intact. Representatives reached out to two Hopkins student organizations that had been involved in on-campus activism during previous years: the Black Student Union (BSU) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Over the past two years, student organizers led the struggle against injustice at Hopkins. This struggle paralleled the rise of Black Lives Matter nationally, and we were intimately involved in student organizing during the “Baltimore Uprising.” Our organizing reached a peak last fall when over two hundred student protesters surrounded President Daniels on a quad during a promotional video screening, demanding that the administration respond to structural racism and inequality on campus. Because of ongoing struggles over these and other issues the union saw the student organizations as potential allies with experience combatting a hostile administration.

To assist the security guards, SDS and BSU organized a petition among the undergraduate students, which received nearly six hundred signatures (not bad for the middle of the summer, when the university is largely empty of students), published a critical op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, and coordinated with SEIU organizers — who had already been canvassing in and around Hopkins.

These efforts convinced the administration to postpone the decision, and to push back through a media campaign to quell rising criticism. Hopkins administrators published their own op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, and the Hopkins media relations office issued a statement:

Union status was not a factor in the decision to initiate this contract review. While union representation is not a requirement of the contract, contractors with unionized employees are welcome to bid and a number of those invited to bid, including Allied Universal . . . are in fact unionized.

Even if the opening of this contract had nothing to do with the unionization of the employees, the university’s refusal to commit to contracting with a unionized company underscores the real threat that collective bargaining poses to the neoliberal university. This threat, while grounded in a desire for enhanced profitability, is not predicated solely on the material costs that unions pose to universities’ profit margins. Unionization poses an existential threat to the continued neoliberalization of academia — one that universities fear indulging, no matter how small the monetary cost.

Who’s the Boss?

The contemporary wave of marketization gripping the world economy, promoted by the political project of neoliberalism, has seen an all-out assault on academia and intellectualism. Although the rising power of university administrators and the shift of academia into the corporate realm can be traced back to the 1970s, the greatest changes have occurred after the 2008 financial crisis, which hit universities as hard as it hit other Western enterprises. High tuition, low wages, and the quelling of campus activism are staples of growing austerity at universities. But just as important is universities’ growing reliance on subcontracted labor to keep the institutions running.

Labor subcontracting is a standard practice in the global push for flexible labor — workers that are less expensive for capital because of low skills and high demand for jobs, temporary or seasonal contracts, informal hiring practices, the replacement of full-time work with part-time work, and subcontracting. While these practices can be found in nearly every industry, they are also prominent at universities.

Subcontracting — whereby companies push the responsibilities of being an employer onto other companies instead of hiring labor themselves — allows institutions to circumvent labor laws and pay lower wages. A report on subcontracting in the University of California system shows that subcontracted employees earn as much as 53 percent less than employees hired by the UC system directly — and often the subcontracted employees have no benefits and fewer job protections.

In this respect the situation of security workers at Johns Hopkins is fairly typical. By contracting with Allied Universal, Hopkins is able to absolve its responsibility for the treatment of workers who fulfill essential university functions, and even remove an entire unionized labor force from its ranks at will.

The difference in bargaining power between employees hired by Hopkins directly and those hired through a subcontractor is made clear by the experience of other low-wage employees at the university. Approximately two thousand employees of the Johns Hopkins Hospital System are also organized by SEIU. In 2014, these workers pushed for a wage increase (aiming for $15 an hour) and won a small, but significant victory. The policy — agreed to by the union and Hopkins — was that “Hopkins will set a $15 hourly wage for employees with 20 years under their belts and a $14 hourly wage for workers with 15 years of experience. All current employees will earn at least $13 an hour by 2018. And the minimum wage for first-year employees will increase annually to $12.60 in 2018.”

These hospital workers are directly employed by Johns Hopkins and so were able to direct their demands for better wages to the university itself — the physical place where they worked, not a different, middle-man company. Allied Universal guards don’t share this relationship. Whatever polices that Hopkins has implemented for its own employees do not apply to them.

Repeating History

This is not the first time that Johns Hopkins’s relationship with subcontracted workers has been a point of contention — nor is it the first time that a coalition of students and labor propelled the movement. In fact, it’s not even the first time Broadway Services has been involved. In the late 1990s, a group of (largely graduate) students formed an organization called Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) with David Harvey — who at the time was a geography professor at Hopkins — as their adviser. SLAC began to collect information from workers throughout the university and hospital systems and began to piece together the hardships that low-wage workers at Johns Hopkins were facing.

At the time, Hopkins was beginning to phase in subcontracting as an alternative to hiring employees outright. SLAC discovered that the company being hired to provide these subcontracted workers — Broadway Services — was owned by the Dome Corporation, a company created by and for Johns Hopkins University. Basically, in order to institute subcontracting Hopkins created a shell company with which it could then enter a contract. Straight out of an absurd dystopia, the building that served as Broadway’s headquarters was less than a block away from the Hopkins medical campus.

SLAC leaders argued that this demonstrated that Hopkins was, in fact, the employer of these workers and, in concert with the ongoing national fight for a living wage, began planning actions.

Teaming up with the SEIU, the All Peoples Congress, Unity for Action, the Center for Poverty Solutions, ACORN, Students Against Sweatshops, the Black Student Union, and other local community organizations, SLAC orchestrated several pro-worker actions against the university administration. These included dropping banners during speeches, organizing thousands of signatures on petitions, building a “shanty town” with “Hopkins Creates Poverty” signs on a quad, and hosting rallies across the campus.

The climax came three years later in March 2000, when SLAC organizers and hundreds of supporters stormed the administrative office building and eight activists locked their necks together and to the building doors. The sit-in lasted over one hundred hours and received support in the form of food and supplies from local businesses. Notable academics and activists such as David Harvey, Howard Zinn, and Beverly Silver all came out to show support. Noam Chomsky even called the students to offer praise and solidarity.

The university eventually capitulated and agreed to raise wages for all low-wage workers — both employees of the university and employees of subcontractors — at Hopkins. I spoke with some of the activists involved in this action, who claim that this was the first victory at a private institution in the living-wage campaign. It was a powerful victory — but one that did not have long-lasting effects. Wages are still low and workers are still voiceless — and the institutional memory of activists at universities like Hopkins is devastatingly short.

Building a Movement

Academia is transient. It’s difficult to build directly on the work of those who came before us. The living wage struggle led by SLAC activists eventually subsided and those involved moved through the university and dispersed around the world. The current struggle at Hopkins has barely begun — the guards have only been unionized for two years and a coalition of students and labor has only recently been formed.

But noteworthy achievements have still been accomplished. In the face of public pressure, Hopkins announced earlier this month that it would renew its contract with Allied Universal — despite the tailored bidding towards Broadway. This was a victory for the unionized workers and for the student organizations that pushed the university. When it was solely the unionized subcontracted workers — and the company, Allied Universal — pushing to renew the contract, union and university insiders largely believed (or were resigned to the fact) that Hopkins would ignore the calls and hire Broadway Services. However, once students got involved, Hopkins postponed its decision — and eventually capitulated to the demands. While on a smaller scale than earlier actions at the university, parallels can be drawn; by working together, two groups of “stakeholders” in university life were able to achieve success.

Low-wage workers, along with graduate students, adjuncts, faculty, and undergraduates, face uphill battles with their administrations in the fight against the ongoing capitalist transformation of the university. Demands from past and current struggles are constantly unmet. But if we stand together, learn from those who struggled before us, and understand that our struggles are linked, we will be more successful than we could ever be alone.