November 9, 2007

Admin at fault in contract talks

In Tuesday’s unsigned editorial (“A Union Divided,” 11/6/07), the Maroon Editorial Board chides union workers for not coming to a consensus on the administration’s most recent contract offer. The Board argues that the workers, and not the administration, are to blame for the impasse in negotiations.

But of course workers are divided. The administration has presented workers with two bad choices. They could either accept a wage offer that does not keep up with the rising cost of living in Chicago or hold out for a fair offer, even if that means waiting through several more months of negotiations and protests. Workers have not gotten a raise in 20 months. Any person whose wage has been stagnant for so long will understandably grapple with how best to provide for his family when faced with the choice presented by the administration. The Editorial Board scolds workers for not easily coming to consensus on such difficult topics, but in doing so misses the real culprit in these negotiations.

The Maroon would make better use of its time and printing space by critiquing the administration’s behavior in these negotiations. While workers have been given the choice between a substandard wage increase and waiting longer for a fair wage, the administration’s choice is easy. It can either continue to pinch pennies with those who need them most or it can increase its offer to the four-percent increase that workers have asked for. This would amount to another $200,000 per year. Each of the University’s 13 officers earns more than that annually. Furthermore, it is 1/2000 of the $400 million by which the University's endowment grew in the last year. Just this Wednesday, V.P. Hank Webber sent us all an e-mail saying that the University would easily forgive the $1.2 million in back rent owed by the Co-op. The comparisons could go on and on, but in the end it is obvious: The University could easily afford its workers this raise and has no financial justification for denying it.

The administration knows this, and this is why it has focused its defense on the idea that a four-percent raise is not the industry standard. The administration argues that no one else in higher education is giving workers four-percent wage increases, so why should the University of Chicago? But this argument does not stand up to scrutiny. The industry standard includes at least four-percent wage increases annually. Yale pays its workers wage increases of four or five percent each year. Harvard’s wage increases are also above four percent over the length of the contract. Cornell, Berkeley, and NYU similarly give workers wage increases of at least four percent each year. The industry standard is simply much higher than what the University has offered.

Since the administration has stated its desire to follow the industry standard, the next steps are clear. It should offer workers the four-percent wage increase that the institution can afford and that its dedicated workers deserve. While it's at it, the administration should make a real commitment to job security and bring back the annual “step increases,” which paid workers increases that reflected their increased experience and service to the University. The union has dropped these demands in the interest of coming to an agreement with the University, but these are also standards in institutions of higher education and are sorely missing at the U of C. If the union can give up step increases and job security, then maybe the administration can give up $200,000.

The Maroon is wrong to blame workers instead of the University for the state of the current contract negotiations. The workers do so much for us and are asking so little in return. $200,000 is not much money to this institution, but it would mean a lot to workers trying to make ends meet. Students should stand with workers until they get what they deserve.

Alex Moore is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science. He is an organizing member of Student Organizing United with Labor.