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Notre Dame and the working class

| Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On Sept. 20, Michael Adamek, a custodian at the University of Notre Dame, died in the Hesburgh Library parking lot. I didn’t know about his death, however, until more than two weeks later. Outside of a website press release, the University made no mention of Adamek and his longtime service to Notre Dame.

It took Selwin Wainaina’s Oct. 11 letter to The Observer for word on Adamek’s death to reach me and most of the student body. His touching letter served as a powerful tribute to Adamek and the work he did for our school. It also brought to light the remarkable dichotomy between white and blue collar at Notre Dame. It’s a problem that extends beyond the administration and into the student body.

This is not to say that the University’s relationship with the working class is entirely rocky. Notre Dame is almost constantly expanding, building new classrooms and dorms and student centers, updating longstanding fixtures on campus. For each and every one of these projects, Notre Dame hires only union contractors. “Notre Dame has had a tradition for more than 100 years of hiring union workers because they bring the skills and experience needed for the complex projects on our campus,” Dennis Brown, spokesperson for the University, said. Not only are union workers more skilled and experienced, but they’re treated significantly better than nonunion workers. They receive better compensation, more time off and adequate pay for overtime. Because a union project will typically be more expensive than nonunion work, Notre Dame’s century-long commitment is truly admirable.

But a discrepancy arises when one looks at what sort of students the university admits. Notre Dame students are among the most wealthy in the country. A 2017 New York Times study showed the median family income for a student at the University is $191,400 — median income for all American families is just $57,617. The school ranks 34th out of 2,395 colleges in median parent income. Just 1.6 percent of Notre Dame students come from the bottom 20 percent.

Perhaps because Notre Dame students are so absurdly affluent, it appears many of us pay little attention to the working class that built South Bend and the rest of the United States. Outside of Wainaina’s letter, I’ve seen no response to the death of Adamek. Even the campus’s more liberal students turn a blind eye to blue collar issues. There were class walkouts for the inauguration of President Trump. Organizations handed out buttons in support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings. I’m not saying these issues are undeserving of the student body’s attention. But I’ve yet to see a rally to raise minimum wage, or to prevent further outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs. The issues most apparent in South Bend, the ones that Notre Dame students can most closely view, are ignored. The University’s left would seem far more concerned with diversity casting in a movie than a factory closing in East Chicago.

Notre Dame lies in the heart of the Rust Belt. In the early 20th century, South Bend was a manufacturing center, home to massive plants including Singer Sewing, Oliver Chilled Plow and Studebaker. But those jobs left long ago, and the town has struggled to regain its footing since. Every day, students walk through construction zones managed by contractors, dining halls staffed by workers, dorms and buildings cleaned by custodians like Michael Adamek. We can’t underestimate their contributions to Notre Dame.

Every day, we drive through South Bend, Indiana. We see, first-hand, the plight of deindustrialization, see how long it can take a region to recover from losing its entire economy. It’s true — economies change and develop, manufacturing centers shift. But we at Notre Dame should appreciate the work of the working class, of the steel mills and car plants that made America. We can’t turn our backs on the people that built this nation.

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college junior and a grumpy old man. A New Jersey native and American studies major, he plans on pursuing a legal career after graduating Notre Dame. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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

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