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Worker conditions need greater attention

Staff Editorial | Friday, April 28, 2006

A little more than a week after Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves issued a statement that denied the Campus Labor Action Project’s recommendation to institute a task force to examine Notre Dame’s labor policies and reaffirmed the University’s current employment policies, many workers are still dissatisfied.

It was an explanatory statement from the University – but not enough.

Workers told The Observer that many of Affleck-Graves’ arguments – that the University already pays a “fair and just wage,” that workers receive substantial benefit and insurance packages ‘ – just don’t hold weight.

While this may be, the issue is not so simple. The economic implications of raising the hourly wage for campus workers to $12.10 are substantial.

It is a fundamental tenet of economics that raising the minimum wage will create higher unemployment in the long run. The lowest wages at this University may seem like a trivial percentage of the budget, but they are a percentage. It is easy to imagine the administration spending extra money on hiring more professors for smaller class sizes rather than more cleaning staff for cleaner buildings. By raising the campus wage, Notre Dame could be forced to decide where its priorities lie.

Yes, the trade-offs the University would face represent only a basic economic argument. And yes, there are more complex factors involved. It certainly does not imply that raising the wage isn’t worthy of serious consideration. Other prominent universities, such as Harvard, Georgetown and Washington University in St. Louis, have raised wages for campus workers.

CLAP has been working to raise awareness of its cause for most of this semester. After continued demands that Jenkins issue a public statement in support of a living wage, the group submitted an 11-page report to Jenkins, Provost Thomas Burish, Affleck-Graves and Vice President for Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman on March 8. Affleck-Graves’ response came April 19 – more than a month later. Until recently, the University has been relatively quiet regarding the issue. The response has been inadequate.

Notre Dame is a Catholic university. Furthermore, it is a university that prides itself on its efforts – especially the efforts of its students – to promote social justice around the world. So Affleck-Graves’ emphasis that dialogue regarding campus labor issues should take place between the University and its workers – not students – is nothing less than jarring. By implying that students should not be concerned with the employment conditions of the workers who serve this community daily, the University undermines much of what it stands for.

The wage issue is far from straightforward, a complexity-laden argument that must take a multitude of factors into consideration. One thing is clear, however – no University employee should ever work in fear.

That mentality, Affleck-Graves said, is “deeply disturbing.” But just because the thought is disturbing doesn’t mean the University can ignore the large number of workers who fear reprisal if they speak up against their employers – a genuine fear that deterred many of them from speaking to The Observer this week.

It’s not just wages. It’s about respect – respect for the workers, respect for the students and, most of all, respect for Notre Dame.