January 30, 2015

Campus employees take a stand for worker's rights

University employees detailed their experiences with their jobs at an event Thursday hosted by a student group devoted to fighting for workers’ rights and economic justice.

The event was hosted by Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL), and featured a panel of speakers that included  the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) staff, graduate student workers, and residence hall staff. The meeting also served as a precursor to the Students in Solidarity with Nurses march, which aimed to show support for National Nurses United (NNU) nurses as they took part in a strike vote at the UCMC.

The first speaker was Kristin Liskh, a UCMC nurse who described the relationship between UCMC nurses and the University before leaving to participate in the strike vote that night. She emphasized her belief that the UCMC is more concerned with profits than with medical care.

“The Medical Center consistently makes decisions to protect its hefty bottom line,” she said.

“There are not enough nurses to take care of the amount of patients that are on the unit, or [nurses are] sent to a unit where [they] don’t feel [they] have the knowledge base to take care of that type of person.” She also expressed her belief that a strike would be the only way to force the University to address the nurses’ concerns.

Jan Rodolfo, the Midwest Director of NNU, said the UCMC’s revenues are not adequately distributed. “They made $1.267 billion  in patient care revenue for fiscal year 2012...[the money] is not going to labor costs or to actually staffing the way things need to [sic]...where it’s going is actually towards the building of new buildings on campus.” Rodolfo also said that the University uses the consistent revenue of the UCMC to build its bond rating and allow it to get loans for building projects.

Charmaine Lane, a desk clerk in Maclean Hall, spoke about her experiences on campus. “I’ve been here for 23 [years], and I don’t make over $15 an hour,” she said. “[W]e just had a wage reopener; we won our wage reopener, and I still don’t make $15,” she said, eliciting cries of “that ain’t right” from several members of the audience.

Fabian Arzuaga, a seventh-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science, spoke about the issues facing graduate student instructors at the University.

“We get something called Graduate Aid Initiative (GAI), which is a pretty good support for about five years...and then you’re on your own,” he said. He added that the five-year limit slows down their academic progress, as they must spend additional time working to support themselves, he said.

He also described how the financial circumstances facing graduate students at the University limit the pool of potential academics. “This total lack of support...discriminates actively against people becoming academics, especially people from limited means, and so if the pay was actually liveable, I think it would open up the pool for more diverse sorts of candidates to enter academia.”

The goal of the meeting, according to organizer and second-year student Psalm Brown, was “to start and continue dialogue between students and workers. [E]ventually we hope to mobilize students or at least educate them on the things that are going on on campus,” he added.