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An open letter to Father Malloy concerning workers’ rights

BJ Strew | Monday, September 29, 2003

The moral integrity of the University is in quiet jeopardy. That sounds dramatic because it is dramatic: Our administration has traded the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching for frigid corporate indifference – fealty to the bottom line. It’s profit over people again, unless Notre Dame respects its workers’ rights to organize and to a living wage.

To deny its workers these rights is to drag Notre Dame into a swamp of hypocrisy. Lip service cannot be paid in homilies and classroom lectures, while this local crisis is slyly swept under the rug. We send students to Appalachia and Africa – to earth’s every corner – but slight the injustice in our own hallways. It’s right under our noses and we look past it. This cannot carry on.

That workers’ rights even need any defense is an unsettling idea, but it is a fact. So first, to bring everyone up to speed, I will provide a brief history of the fight for workers’ rights. Following that, I will offer a modest proposal – indeed, the same one the Progressive Student Alliance suggested last year – modeled on the recent victories at Harvard and elsewhere. Finally I’ll assess each side of the debate.

Apart from today’s surfeit of anecdotal evidence, the upsetting history of Notre Dame’s battle with labor is well documented. Notably, in 1977, the administration successfully fought the unionization of groundskeepers with the Teamsters. Only eight years ago, it swiftly quelled a sizeable group of secretaries’ budding interest in higher wages. (They were earning the second-lowest wages among the half dozen Michiana-area schools.) Labor’s struggle continues with the request the Progressive Student Alliance sent to you early last year.

Alas, the administration rebuffed the PSA’s sensible call for a public statement, wherein, ideally, you might have asserted the University’s dedication to fair-minded labor practices. Instead, Notre Dame’s Public Relations director, Dennis Moore, of all people, responded skeptically, casting the administration in the role of the workers’ shepherd, deciding itself what is in the workers’ “best interests.” (Chief among these alleged interests, I imagine, is to not organize.) In the end, tellingly, the administration asked to keep the matter private.

Sorry, sir, but this matter cannot languish behind closed doors. What we need is action. What we need is a “road map” to campus labor justice. The PSA advocated a Code of Conduct that the University should agree to: Essentially, that efforts to organize would be respected, the University would make statements of neutrality and voluntary card-check recognition and a pledge to honor the workers’ need for a living wage.

Neutrality compels the University to refrain from often brutal tactics discouraging the workers’ organizing, such as “captive audience” meetings, hiring union-busters, scare campaigns or threats of pink slips and wage cuts. Voluntary card-check recognition has the University acknowledge a majority of workers signing union cards as a union, bypassing the lengthy, unfair National Labor Relations Board elections.

Not surprisingly, the University opposed both neutrality and voluntary card-check recognition.

Neutrality, the administration argued, removed its right to express its position vis-à-vis workers organizing. But a statement of neutrality entails no such sacrifice. Even if it did, how, logically and ethically, would the University oppose anything that would endow its workers with a voice, with greater control over their own livelihood?

And it opposed card-check recognition saying the proposal ought to come from the workers themselves, not students. Though not baseless, does this question of origin truly merit the administration’s outright refusal? Perhaps if the workers believed such a proposal would not be met with pink slips, they would approach the administration.

It’s not like the University is strapped for funds. Notre Dame boasts a 2.5 billion dollar endowment, ranked 18th nationwide, that can pay scores of six-figure salaries – it can easily afford to justly compensate its workers. Instead, at the lowest pay levels, campus workers earn roughly a 20th of what you earn, at least a dollar below the living wage. Put another way, they make annually what you do in about 18 days – a strikingly ironic case of income inequality for a campus proudly featuring, inter alia, a Center for Social Concerns and Higgins Labor Research Center. Any case that the University makes against paying its workers a living wage is, as I see it, indefensible.

While we cannot, as Dr. Johnson said, wipe all tears from all faces, we can do what’s in our power. And, as President, much is in your power. You, sir, are then faced with two decisions, each of which will reflect on the character of the University.

Either we respect workers’ rights, as Catholic social teaching prescribes, or we don’t. Choosing the former would powerfully affirm our commitment to the dignity of those who make Notre Dame work. Choosing the latter would blemish the University’s lasting reputation, turning us into tightfisted hypocrites, accomplices to injustice and numb to the prevailing winds of social progress.

As matters of such clear moral gravity, they should be addressed without delay. I hopefully look forward to your reply.

BJ Strew is a junior English major. His column appears every other Monday. Contact him at [email protected]

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