Give workers the fair contract that they deserve

By Aliza Levine

You wouldn’t be too happy if you found out the candidates for 2008 on Election Day.

Nor would you be happy if your Sosc paper were assigned on the same day it was due.

Then perhaps you have some idea how campus workers felt earlier this month when they were given a complete version of their contract for the first time on the very day they were required to vote on it.

The contract was settled late Wednesday, September 19, giving the union only one full workday to get a copy of the contract to all 1,200 workers before the vote Friday. It was Friday morning before all the workers finally saw the contract.

Since the campus clerical workers’ contract expired seven months ago, their union has been in negotiations with University administrators regarding the renewed contract. The new contract offered a pay raise, which, because it did not keep up with the rising cost of living, actually amounted to a pay cut. Workers were offered a two-percent raise for the first six months, two percent for the next six months, and then a three-percent raise for the subsequent two years. At first glance, it seems as though this structure is in favor of workers—a four-percent reward on the first year. However, because the contract covers seven months without a contract, workers would only get a two-percent raise on their retroactive pay, not the three-percent that would be standard, or really, substandard, for the rest of the year.

Furthermore, the contract did not include provisions for better job security or salary increases reflecting workers’ experience and commitment to the University—provisions that are also standard in most other union contracts.

The four-percent pay raise that campus workers are asking for, which barely keeps pace with the rate of inflation, would amount to less than $400,000 a year. President Zimmer, meanwhile, takes in $629,000 a year.

It seems as though this decision, once again, is not about the money. It’s about the University holding power over its workers and prioritizing highly-paid managers over the rest of the workforce. This culture of overwork plays out in the day-to-day lives of those who keep our dorms clean and our buildings running smoothly.

One worker, who had been at the University for over 30 years, reported that when he began his job, three managers oversaw the 143 workers in his division. But this year, 75 highly-paid managers oversaw the same 143 workers. Newly added positions included “client service manager” and “purchasing specialist.” There is no practical reason for this absurd addition of personnel; much like Da Mare’s bureaucracy, an environment has been created where managers can be well paid for cushy jobs, while those doing the labor are poorly compensated.

Not only are managers overpaid, but workers are overstressed. In many divisions on campus, cuts in personnel mean fewer workers have to do excessive amounts of work. Consequently, workers are forced to work overtime even on days, such as Martin Luther King Day, that their contracts guarantee them time off.

And because of the unfair wages, exemplified in the recent contract offer, many campus workers live in distant areas, including locations in Indiana, because the pay that the U of C provides is not sufficient to afford the cost of living in Hyde Park, or even in Chicago.

Also troubling is the intimidation experienced by many workers. It is so great that, for example, when a campus worker wanted to discuss the problems of overwork with a coworker, she only felt safe talking while hiding in a storage closet.

The good news is that workers are not standing for these abuses. They have already started organizing for a better contract with the support of Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL), an RSO I’m proud to work with. Workers voted down their contract 533–47 (a historic first at the U of C), and SOUL’s rally first week drew over 200 people.

And now it’s time that we start working with our campus workers. They are fighting for the basic respect and due process that we, as students, take for granted. As students, we are $50,000-a-year stakeholders in this University. Our money should go toward everyone who makes our education possible—our professors, graduate students, and our campus workers.

So give President Zimmer a call and let him know that you appreciate all the hard work campus workers do to make our university run and that they deserve a better contract. (His digits are (773) 702–8001.) And support workers’ efforts by voting with your feet at a rally they organize.

Learning does not happen in a vacuum. We should respect the workers who maintain these halls of wisdom.