November 20, 2007

Point–Counterpoint: Not all factors can be easily measured

Whether it is numbers on the quads, the chalking in front of the Reg, or the cries of workers and students in front of the administration building, the demand for a four-percent wage increase is not easily ignored. The relevant question is: Why are the workers asking for four percent? The answer is simple.

Workers are asking for a four-percent annual wage increase in order to offset the cost of living increases in their respective communities. Yet what is the rising cost of living, and just how fast is it rising? In the Chicago-Gary-Kenosha region the consumer price index (CPI) rose about 2.5 percent, with food and energy—the most variable factors—excluded. This means that from October 2006 to October 2007, the price of everything but food and energy went up by 2.5 percent.

Needless to say, that figure is significantly lower than what the workers are asking for. However, when food and energy are factored in, the total CPI stood at 4.7 percent over the past year, which is higher than what the workers are asking for.

Food and energy are generally seen as too volatile to be included in the CPI, but it is important to consider the fact that these two commodities have been on a steady incline in recent years. Past inflation is not really the issue here, however. It is important to keep in mind that this contract is for the next three years.

The issue at hand is the numerous factors that influence the cost of living—factors that the CPI, or any other economic device, cannot account for, much less predict. These are the things the workers are really fighting for: the microeconomics of their everyday lives. Every worker can tell you how much and how often the prices of their goods change. They can tell you how dramatic the rise of gas prices has been since their last pay increase occurred (over 20 months ago), how the University is planning to raise the price of parking by at least 25 percent, or how the University is preparing to increase the healthcare premiums of its workers. These are things that no one has researched and would take too long to be accurately modeled.

Yet, there are more issues not covered in the CPI that would be even harder to index, most notably the rising property taxes on the south side of Chicago. With the increasing gentrification in neighborhoods like Bronzeville and Woodlawn, the rapid shifts from rental units to condos are quickly raising the property taxes and forcing the landlords to raise rent.

This is a phenomenon that no one has been able to put into concrete numbers either. No one knows how this rapid displacement of people will affect the economy. This selective gentrification, though occurring in many neighborhoods, is far too specific to be covered by national or even regional price indices.

With all of this information in front of them, the workers know that in the coming years, the rising cost of living could be much higher than the 2.5-percent CPI (without food or energy) would indicate. But even with all of this information, an exact number is not possible.

The workers were not given months to do research that would have cost thousands of dollars. So they made the best estimate they could, balancing the data with what the University would likely agree to; data that the University has not refuted with an argument based on the CPI or any other economic device.

The University recognizes what this fight is really about. They understand that “cost of living increase” is a labor term used to describe the worker’s unquantifiable microeconomic grievances. But the University fails to see the depth of these grievances.

This fight is over what workers deserve to have. They deserve to have a wage that does not force them to move farther south or force them to cut back on groceries, Christmas presents, or anything else that other Americans take for granted. This fight is about the fair and equitable treatment of the citizens of the University community.

Aaron Goggans is a second-year in the College majoring in fundamentals. He is an organizing member of Students Organizing United with Labor.