November 6, 2009

Rethinking the right to work

Students can do more for labor politics than simply echo the same demands.

No idea has marred the labor movement’s progressive potential more than the old biblical slogan, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). This slogan, frequently—and confusedly—held up by socialists, labor activists, and puritans alike, is at its bottom conservative. In an advanced industrial society, where manual toil has been made practically obsolete, workers should be demanding less work. Yet more work is often an immediate demand made by workers in the face of an economic crisis. Take the present moment, for example. Commentators on economic affairs are beginning to cheer up: We are experiencing a jobless recovery, but a recovery nonetheless. The combination of rising rates of profit and low employment has generated an increased clamor for more jobs, hours, and work. Popular calls are made to “Put America Back to Work.” Employees at the University of Chicago are no exception—especially the members of Teamsters Local 743, whose weekly hours were drastically cut from 40 to 35 by the University administration this summer.

On Wednesday, November 4, Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL) brought together student activists and representatives of campus labor organizations, including Teamsters Local 743 and Graduate Students United, to educate the public on this issue and workers’ reactions. Joe Sexauer, who spoke on behalf of campus workers, vehemently called for the restoration of the 40-hour workweek. The cut hours only affected workers in the Residential Halls & Commons management division, suggesting that the Administration is testing the strength of organized labor on campus. Meanwhile, workers have become dispirited as a result of this decision, which was made entirely without their input. John Fejes, a campus engineer who attended the event, stated that “We came up with some proposals [to avoid the cut]…but we were pushed to the side. We still take care of the students, but our morale is down.” Another worker pointed out that decreased hours meant residential services were understaffed, observing, “Student expenses go up, and the quality of their services go down…. It’s just bad all the way around.”

Student activists, in coordination with the Teamsters Union, have petitioned the administration on their behalf, echoing the employees’ calls to restore their 40-hour workweek. SOUL brought to light the workers’ grievances concerning their reduced hours (which effectively constituted an 8 percent pay decrease) and precipitating economic insecurity. The administration responded to activists earlier this week, claiming that its decision was made in order to avoid laying off more workers.

The prevailing attitude of campus workers, as expressed at this last meeting, is that they would prefer the administration to restore the status quo ante rather than retain staff. However, those who hold this attitude—including students—risk conceding too much to the employers. Consider the long-range strategy of the labor movement as a whole. Union membership has been declining nationwide, and few unions are in a position, either organizationally or politically, to do much more than retain gains over their employers that they won in the past. Consequently, it seems as though unions should not sacrifice their membership so easily, especially when the laid off workers would have the odds of getting another union job stacked against them. Therefore it is a demand that is only in the sectional interest of the campus workers, not of working people generally. Moreover, the demand to increase workers’ hours back to 40 hours per week is regressive; it reinforces the notion that wages should be tied directly to hours of work and not the right of the worker to a portion of social wealth adequate to his or her ever-expanding needs. A more adequate demand would be for a pay raise of 8 percent to offset the cuts, and an auxiliary demand to increase the size of the workforce to maintain the total hours of work at the previous level. In other words, we should change the slogan from “Restore the 40-hour workweek!” to “We’ll keep the shorter hours, but don’t cut our pay!”

The political conditions under which labor activism takes place are very poor. Even demands for restitution are treated as progressive goals when no alternatives appear realizable. As one member of GSU put it, “What’s important is that they’re [Teamsters Local 747] fighting at all!” But the matter is not as simple as having a fighting spirit or not; labor unions do have politics, and it is necessary to investigate the character of these politics, as they seem to have been foisted on workers by the prevailing economic crisis. As the socialist politician Paul Lafargue pointed out long ago, advocates for a better world must replace the Right to Work with the Right to be Lazy. Otherwise, activists risk ideologically buttressing the very world they seek to change.

— Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a degree with the Master of Arts program in Social Sciences. He graduated from the College in 2009 with a degree in anthropology.

CORRECTION APPENDED: In the 11/6/09 version of this article, the organization SOUL was written out as Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, which is a coalition of South Side churches. The SOUL in the article stands for Students Organizing United with Labor, a campus group.