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Workers and the Catholic university

Valerie Sayers | Thursday, January 31, 2008

I am a Catholic novelist, which makes me a member of a distinct minority in the world of letters. When I arrived at Notre Dame in 1993, I looked forward to teaching at a university where my work would not be regarded as exotic. A veteran of Catholic undergraduate education, I thought I knew what to expect from a Catholic university.

I was wrong. Notre Dame, because it is our country’s preeminent Catholic university, debates, trumpets and worries about our Catholic identity more than any other institution I know. One of the administration’s biggest current worries is how to attract and retain gifted, productive Catholic faculty and those drawn to our Catholic mission. The Provost’s Committee on Recruiting Outstanding Catholic Faculty recently issued a report filled with sensible recommendations about how we might achieve that goal.

As a fairly-paid, well-treated faculty member, I’d like to add one more suggestion to the list: let’s make Notre Dame the Catholic university known for the fairest labor practices in the country. What’s the connection, you ask, between attracting a first-rate faculty to a Catholic university and treating the other workers on campus fairly?

The way we treat our extensive staff and our part-time faculty says everything about the ethos and morals of this University. Paying our workers fairly and listening to their concerns will demonstrate that Notre Dame’s Catholicism is more than a pious group identity. Fair labor practices embody the Gospel values at the heart of Notre Dame’s mission.

We should all be encouraged that Notre Dame staff members receive many of the same benefits as faculty. We should be proud that the University has chosen to retain many food service jobs that other colleges have outsourced. But when Notre Dame says that its wages are locally competitive, we should examine the claim carefully. We don’t have to drive very far from Notre Dame’s campus to see the visible signs of how very troubled the local economy is, or how many South Bend workers struggle. We are competing with wages that sentence many local workers to constant anxiety and, often, to two jobs just to pay the bills. That kind of “competition” is hardly Catholic.

I teach a course called “Class, Labor, Narrative” whose reading list includes Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and the Catholic Worker Dorothy Day’s memoir The Long Loneliness. Like so many of my students, I am troubled by the gap between the struggle for fair labor practices I teach about and this Catholic University’s institutional reality. When the University outsourced bookstore jobs to a private corporation, many University employees lost their Notre Dame affiliation and benefits. I know office workers who put in a long week at Notre Dame, then moonlight to provide for their families. And recently, I met a custodial worker at Notre Dame, a single mother of four, who admitted embarrassment that she must supplement her full-time Notre Dame wages with food stamps. Now, there’s a challenge to our Catholic identity.

Last summer Father Wilson Miscamble, professor of history here, published a compelling article, “The Corporate University,” in the magazine America. Miscamble argued that “Catholic schools, especially those with significant financial resources, should undertake to provide a ‘living wage’ for their lowest paid employees.” Of course paying our workers better without outsourcing any more jobs will require either a different allocation of resources or more resources, and of course there is already fierce competition for those resources. But committed faculty, administrators, staff and alumni might undertake the joint task of fully supporting our workers with a renewed sense of common purpose.

Our first step should be to listen to workers themselves. Dorothy Day, in the midst of a strike by cemetery workers employed by the Diocese of New York, reminded Cardinal Spellman of the workers’ “right to talk over their grievances …. They have indeed labored with the sweat of their brows, not lived off the sweat of anyone else.” Notre Dame workers should know that they are surrounded by faculty who recognize their hard work and support their desire to be treated with dignity and to discuss their visions of a just working environment.

They should know that they are surrounded by faculty who believe that fair labor practices will attract precisely the kind of students, teachers, staff, and administrators who belong at a Catholic university. Fair labor practices will help us match our stated beliefs to our practices. Fair labor practices will affirm our University’s identity and our own commitment to each other, members of a truly Catholic community.

Valerie Sayers is a professor of English. She can be contacted at vsayers@nd.edu

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