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Notre Dame’s labor question

Kamaria Porter | Wednesday, September 28, 2005

As we enter a new era as a university community we have so many questions to address. How will we respond to new challenges while remaining true to our mission and to the commissioning statement of our founder? How will the questions proposed from in and outside our University community be answered? How will we be a premier research University and maintain the heart of our mission?

I am encouraged by the variety of questions and proposals we all have been mulling over – especially the ones put forward by Father John Jenkins last Friday. A distinct attention to how our university can live, thrive and contribute to a world marked by tensions between secular and religious faiths, the need to be relevant nationally and to be a place with a distinctive soul for its members and our commitment to give the world not only our thoughts, but also our service are all important issues to think about.

How Notre Dame will answer these questions will be exciting to see. I call us all to add one more query to that list, one that societies, leaders and thinkers – especially Catholic ones – have dealt with for years: the labor question.

I call us to first look around. How did campus transform from its early buildings during Father Sorin’s time to the magnificent campus scape we have in Jenkins’ time? How did the classrooms, dorms and faculty offices return to clean and orderly states today, and each day? How did the nourishing food we eat get prepared? The source of each of these things is a person with a life, a name, a family and a stake in this Notre Dame family. How are students, faculty and administrators living in relationship to caretakers of this campus?

I call us next to think about our relationship to our immediate community of South Bend. The relationship seems to be a work in progress, trying for something more cooperative and respectful. We must first examine the most immediate relationship we have with South Bend; staff members who commute from their families, religious congregations and other jobs to Notre Dame and create – and re-create – this beautiful campus.

There is a de facto relationship between workers, students, faculty and administrators. Each is dependent on the others to function, yet each may not be thinking of how to make the other flourish and live in dignity. I know of times where my actions made the work of housekeepers in Welsh Fam – Kim, Jess and Nga – harder. It was a real privilege to work with them during Senior Week to clean and prepare the dorms for parents. The care and – I would say – love these ladies and gentlemen put into making dorms lovely is impressive. Workers to me are the heart of Notre Dame; they keep her running, pumping and growing to what Sorin declared we would be, “one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country.”

Yet, through conversations with workers I have had, there is little reciprocity for their love given each day. Many workers on our campus make below a living wage – a concept described by Pope John Paul II as “one that allows the establishment of a family, its proper maintenance and provision for the security of its future.” Notre Dame workers also hold separate jobs in South Bend, in hopes to supplement their wages to make it. Prices and the means by which to live in dignity – wages – do not rise equally. Cuts to staff and resources make it harder for people to do their jobs to their own satisfaction, depriving them of their vital pride in their labor.

When I worked at Marshall Fields department store, I spent half my time cleaning and organizing the shop floor; the condition of the shop – I felt – reflected on me. I wanted my customers to feel good about my service in every way. When the company did not give us all the things we needed to do our jobs, I was angry at unnecessary barriers to my job. I was angry that older women who had families made the same wages I did – a 17-year-old looking to supplement tuition costs. I was angry when managers and customers demeaned me and my co-workers. I feel the same anger hearing of workers unable to make a good life for their families on Notre Dame’s wages.

Now is the time to think and act big. As we build new places for study and research, campus workers will be the heart of the transformation. How will students, faculty and administrators respond to that vital labor and love? How Notre Dame will answer the labor question is something for each of us to ponder and live out today and each day.

Kamaria B. Porter is a senior history major and likes to clap. Email her a kporter@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.