Guest Column by Penn SLAP | Facilities workers should not be scapegoats for the SAC moratorium

· December 2, 2013, 5:22 pm   ·  Updated December 2, 2013, 11:03 pm

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Early in November, an article entitled “Labor fees behind rise in club costs” blamed labor unions for the SAC moratorium preventing new student clubs from obtaining funding. This article is emblematic of the anti-union attitude on Penn’s campus, which is detrimental to advancing workers’ rights and putting an end to poverty wages both on campus and in Philadelphia.

As students, we would do better to stand in solidarity with workers and support their rights.

Unions have been blamed for the moratorium because the rise in the cost of facilities that clubs use has partially been a result of rising labor costs. Earlier this semester, Madison Cario, building manager of the Annenberg Center, stated that labor costs had risen 3 to 4 percent each year.

An average of a 3 to 4 percent increase each year does not constitute an exorbitant raise when, for example, SEPTA fare rose by 12.5 percent this summer — in fact, it is almost the bare minimum. Furthermore, the cost of living in Philadelphia rises every year, which necessitates wage increases for workers to support themselves and their families.

It does not make sense to begrudge our facilities workers a few extra cents each year when administrators received massive wage — like Amy Gutmann, whose salary increased by 43 percent from 2010 to 2011. Like everyone, the workers on campus who clean up after us, keep us safe and make it possible for us to hold the club events we have each year deserve a living wage and affordable health care.

At Penn, we often throw around statements such as “the market determines the value of labor” or “people are paid based on their skill.”

Although an analysis like this might make sense in an economics class, we cannot forget that real peoples’ lives are at stake. Everyone deserves a living wage, and no one should be subjected to poverty just because of the supply and demand of the marketplace.

Although the “market” is not a human being, companies are run by people who make huge profits as a result of workers’ labor and have the power to make decisions about wages and benefits, giving them enormous control over workers’ lives.

Unions offer workers a fighting chance in their workplace in an economy that favors profits over people. We should support unions that represent workers on campus and hold Penn, a powerful institution, accountable for treating its workers fairly.

As well as helping workers access increased wages and affordable health care, unions offer benefits that are not material, such as collective bargaining rights, job security and protection from harassment. Through unions, workers find the sense of dignity and respect at work they deserve.

Wayne Neal, who works for facilities in the School of Design, has been a union member for 35 years and says his experience at other non-union jobs lacked the wages, benefits and sense of power he enjoys with his current job.

As a result of his pay at Penn, he has been able to put his daughter through college and even hopes to take some college classes himself when he retires.

Experiences like Neal’s are a direct result of union advocacy for workers’ rights. Supporting workers’ dignity, safety and mental health on campus means supporting unions, as well as supporting Penn’s efforts to treat its workers fairly.

Finally, as students, we should stand in solidarity with working people, who across the country and here in Philadelphia are increasingly facing attacks on their workplace rights.

We should not forget about working class students at Penn who are affected by an anti-labor, anti-union attitude that makes the University less hospitable to them. We should challenge the rhetoric of meritocracy that blames working class people for their economic condition, and we should not allow Penn’s administration to scapegoat unions for the SAC moratorium.

Penn should be able to both support its workers properly and fund the student groups that we all enjoy and participate in.

The Student Labor Action Project at Penn seeks to promote economic justice through workers’ rights. The authors of this article, Clara Hendrickson and Rachel Abbott, can be reached at clara.hendrickson.5@gmail.com and rabbott@sas.upenn.edu, respectively.

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