Voodoo Economics: A Halloween throws the plight of UofC workers into sharp relief

On October 30, campus workers voted not to accept the University of Chicago’s (UofC) new contract proposal. This decision prompted a plethora of witches, painful political impersonations, and other Belmont-bought costumed individuals to gather in front of the Administration Building on Halloween to protest the failure of the University to provide a fair agreement. Meanwhile, most UofC students seemed too consumed completing midterms and ditching their regularly chic outfits for “costumes” to notice the event’s chalkings and correspondingly were severely confused by the decorated crowd. In any case, the campus workers’ struggle exemplifies a continuing critical commentary on the University and the modern relationship between the employer and the employed.

As expected, the situation is far from simple. Campus workers desire pay increases that parallel both the rising cost of living and the University’s past step increase system. With growing economic inflation, many individuals are calling for a four percent raise. However, the conflict between employees and the University emulates a traditional ethical versus practical division. While many of the workers’ supporters ground their rhetoric in general notions of human dignity, the University emphasizes both its past improvements and its goal of establishing basic consistency with industry trends.

The University administration argues that utilizing cost of living adjustments is a dated practice and a four percent pay increase exceeds the majority of allotments across the industry. As such, University offers proposing three and a half percent salary increases are generous compared to workers’ alternative employment opportunities. Moreover, the University claims that its budget cannot facilitate workers’ demands; officials note that donations would sponsor any pay adjustments. However, unrestricted gifts are rare and therefore inconsistent sources of funding. At the same time, the University has attempted to address workers’ criticisms. Over three years ago, it reclassified desk clerks to warrant their raises. Currently, the administration has been re-examining its policies on employees’ break time.

The question then is if the University has an obligation to fulfill its workers’ stipulations. Competition is pivotal to establishing an effective workforce. By offering certain incentives, employers motivate their staff to better perform their jobs. Ideally, organizations must compete with others for employees. This establishes a system of checks and balances that ensures a mutual respect between the employer and the employed. Realistically, a multiplicity of factors can undermine this relationship. For example, as one of the largest employers on the South Side, the UofC has a monopoly on the employment pool. Many of the University’s employees do not live in Hyde Park and some commute from Indiana. This arrangement creates a high potential for abuse and warrants the creation of new checks for workers. Hence, a united workforce is important to help guard against this abuse and is more likely to result in fair compensation. In order for unions and other labor groups to be effective, workers must be actively involved within them. By voicing their concerns and pushing their organization to actualize their desires, members not only better guarantee the implementation of their goals, but also prevent the corruption of their leadership.

Teamsters Local 743 is the campus workers’ representative to the University; along with UofC officials, it is determining a contract that satisfies both the school and its constituents. This process has been particularly difficult due to growing differences between workers and Local 743. In his article “University of Chicago Teamsters Organize for a Stronger Contract,” Joe Sexauer, Local 743 member and UofC worker, writes that teamsters were starting to organize independently to resolve their contract concerns. He states: “Our local officials are sitting on the sidelines–they haven’t done anything to win us a stronger contract.” Despite agreeing that a contract that meets their needs is overdue, campus workers had to shake off their growing complacency and push for change. By educating members about more than just the negative implications of a poor contract, the newly organized individuals encourage them to be active participants in the process. This movement is important insofar that campus employees have the most to lose, which justifies their calls for both accountability and respect from Local 743 and the University.

Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL) is also a participant in this process: a UofC student organization dedicated to supporting all workers’ struggles for rights and just compensation, especially those employed by the UofC. SOUL recognizes that the University requires more than professors and students to operate appropriately. By providing space to hold meetings and raising awareness about the conflict to both workers and the university community, SOUL has become a strong component of the campus employees’ campaign. Furthermore, the organization has encouraged workers to demonstrate. In September, SOUL sponsored a rally with workers to protest against the University’s contract proposition. The demonstration attracted over 200 individuals and represented the seriousness of the cause: workers were no longer going to passively accept unjust University policies.

Student groups like SOUL symbolize the growing recognition of students as stakeholders in the University. This past year movements such as divestment from Darfur and Kick Coke Off Campus motivated students to utilize their power as stakeholders. Different viewpoints developed from these campaigns and encouraged dialogue across campus about the theory behind practical concerns and impacts of policy decisions outside the University. The workers movement is the next step in students acting on their opinions instead of solely voicing them. In many ways, this phenomenon benefits the campaign insofar that students have an economic investment in the University. The issue then is how student actions operate in relation to the workers’ struggle.

Despite the importance of SOUL’s September rally, many campus employees chose not to participate in it. Workers were thankful for the students’ support, but their lack of stronger participation indicates an underlying issue between the employer and the employed. Even with the consortium of checks on the macro-level, workers are still individuals. Demonstrations consist of groups of people, but are identified as one entity. After the event, workers return to operate on a micro-level and must submit to the conceptions of their employers. Job security and the fulfillment of basic needs encourage a lack of activism among workers. Many interviews with campus employees parallel this sentiment. Granted, employers have the right to employ whom they want, but this ability constructs a power inequity that is impossible to resolve without dissolving the concept of labor.

This predicament can be improved. With each demonstration, more individuals realize that inaction epitomizes the status quo. Beyond the introduction of a theme, SOUL’s Halloween rally was unique from its September one. Most importantly, more workers participated in both the planning and the actual demonstration. Alex Moore, an organizer in SOUL, wrote: “Workers were taking the lead more on this rally. The workers came up with the idea of having the Halloween— themed rally. They did outreach to other unions, lead chants, and did all of the speaking. We mainly promoted it to the student body and made signs.”

While most UofC students were celebrating Halloween by either slaving in the Reg or wandering down University Avenue, others alongside campus workers were representing what seems to be a dying belief. The contract debacle needs to be resolved, but the loss of more-awkwardly-dressed-than-usual UofC students on the way to Cobb symbolizes a worse alternative. Ideally, employment is supposed to be a reciprocal relationship; of course, realistically it is not. Compromise is important to any resolution, but as the world seems to become increasingly disengaged from the labor struggle, resolutely standing against economic maltreatment and apathy is becoming much more necessary. The campus workers’ campaign confirms the necessity of activism. The dissolution of power relationships may be a tad idealistic, but attempts at trying to deconstruct characteristics of their inequitable nature are worth the effort.