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Friday, September 29

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The one thing I've learned in my three or so years as a student at the University of Chicago is that it is not only the place where fun comes to die but where decentralized bureaucracy comes to breed. It's no wonder that the University of Chicago, with its Byzantine administrative structure, is the largest employer on the South Side of Chicago. None of its much touted community outreach efforts, then, can possibly match the power and reach of the Human Resources Department (or its attendant mini-HR departments scattered throughout the university) for impact on local communities on the South Side. Nothing a New Communities Program grant or undergraduate service project can accomplish matches the impact of hiring, wage and benefit, and other employment policies on local neighborhoods for both permanent staff and the hundreds if not thousands more who work temporarily on the various campus construction projects. This state of affairs makes current trends in the university's attitude towards workers even more troubling. In the last two years, the university has taken a harder line against workers' internationally recognized right to free association in labor unions.

Despite the debate that rages in this space and others, there are a number of well-documented and pretty incontrovertible facts about labor unions. For the vast majority of workers, union representation means higher wages, better benefits, better job quality (hours worked, etc.) and more stable employment. For employers, union representation means that they have less control over labor costs and flexibility. They generally adopt two stances towards unions, one defensible, one less so. The first is to avoid union representation, fight over contract details if they have unions in their workplaces, and attempt to hold the line on wages and benefits out of a desire to cut costs and hold down labor costs. The second is a more ideological opposition to unionization and worker organizing that relies heavily on the well-funded world of "right to work" consultancy and legal firms.

The University seems to be moving from the first to the second mode of relating to labor unions. Its well-publicized contract fight with Teamsters Local #743 was a typical contract fight, except if you sat through an orientation to working at the university and heard the invective directed towards the union and its workers. It does not take a tin-foil hat to imagine that the poor contract offer and intransigence on the part of the university had something to do with fear of a re-invigorated local under new elected leadership.

A second example is the (uh-oh, here we go) choice of grocery store to replace the Hyde Park Co-Op. The Co-Op, for all its problems, was a unionized grocery store, under RWDSU Local 239, that provided decent wages, hours and benefits in an industry largely given over to non-unionized stores which, if they do provide comparable wages and benefits, use scheduling gimmicks to make it extremely challenging to get the hours one needs to qualify for benefits or make good money. Treasure Island, the university's choice for "our" grocery store, besides being non-union, engaged in a lengthy decertification fight with UFCW locals 881 and 1546. (Here's the Reader's piece on it). While the specifics of the decertification reveal a complicated story, decertification itself is the nuclear option of labor relations and rarely happens without employer complicity and encouragement. The fact that Treasure Island hired one of those union-busting right-to-work firms (whose press release touting their victory seems to have disappeared from their website) to assist it in the fight makes one wonder if the university gave a 20 year lease to an ideologically anti-union store.

The most egregious example of the university in bed with a firm resolutely opposed to workers exercising their right to association is its attempt to impose a no-bid process on the redevelopment of the Doctor's Hospital at 59th and Stony Island. White Lodging, the university's choice of vendor, not only has no union representation at its 100 or so hotels, but also has been accused of intimidation and other shady practices in its fight against worker organizing. The canard that firms like White Lodging and Treasure Island put up is that "we don't need a union, we take care of our workers" is laughable in the extreme in White Lodging's case. White Lodging stands accused of actively attempting to prevent its housekeeping staff at its Midway hotels from taking their state mandated breaks and is being sued by the federal government for discrimination against Muslim employees.

The university's non-union employees, such as teaching assistants, do not offer good advertisements for the dignity and quality of non-union work. TAs receive $1,500 a quarter for teaching undergraduate students, without health insurance. At Northwestern, TAs receive $4,900 a quarter, and at Cornell, $10,000 a semester. It is also disheartening that the unions the university has chosen to pick a fight with or ignore are the most racially diverse unions in the city. Local #743 has large numbers of African-American and women workers who live in local neighborhoods, UFCW 881 is extremely diverse and UNITE-HERE Local #1 has almost 500 African-American workers in the 5th Ward alone.

It's hard to know why the university would act in such ways that indicate it finds labor unions to be antithetical to its stated mission of improving the quality of life in neighborhoods across the South Side. I have no answer for why the University of Chicago has worked mightily in the last two years to weaken the power of institutions that so impact the quality of life in neighborhoods throughout Chicago. Without a serious re-examination of the impact of the University's stance towards workers and unions, its efforts to improve the quality of life in Woodlawn, South Shore, Hyde Park, Washington Park, Kenwood-Oakland and Bronzeville will be mere window dressing and public relations theatre.

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Brian / February 6, 2008 8:42 PM

Having worked at the U of C as a non-union student employee, I have no doubt why they hate unions: the employee unions were a total pain in the ass to deal with.

"Not my job description" is the first thing anybody said.

[Huge rant of specifics deleted].

If I had to supervise those whiners, and was prevented from firing the slackers by their union, I'd hate the union too. I wasn't even in charge and I hated dealing with the whiners in the union. Grow the F up and do a good job was a totally alien concept.

And grad students get paid shitty wages because: YOU OUTNUMBER UNDERGRADUATES FOUR TO ONE. Did you just notice this? In a scenario where supply exceeds demand you expected to command a high wage? You are shocked to discover resistance to your effort to form a supply cartel?

Pardon the rant, but aren't U of C students supposed to be smart?

Mateus / February 7, 2008 9:13 AM

I too am a U of C grad and wonder why you are so upset. I found many union employees to be useless as tits on a boar.

Given that most university employees actually perform work maybe a few hours a day, and that many of them come from the surrounding community, I'd say the U provides them with tons of work - if you got people to work all day, you could probably eliminate a third of the staff.

As a person who has been unionized labor, I can tell you I hated it. I didn't like paying a big part of my earnings to a nebulous body who without fail negotiated a crapy raise every year - and probalby received a kickback from the company for doing so. I also didn't appreciate that it didn't matter if I was the best employee, I wasn't getting a raise until everyone else did, and my raise would be the same. After a while I stopped working hard because what was the point? Maybe this incentive system, or lack thereof, explains why employers don't like unions.

It is no coincidence that despite its plethora of unemployed autoworkers, foreign car manufacturers never open factories in Michigan. Yet their employees in Tennessee and Mississippi aren't marching in the streets. I think they don't locate in Michigan more for fear of employees with a union work ethic than for fear of the unions themselves.

Let's remember that when the union movement started there was very little in the way of OSHA rules or civil liability for mistreatment of employees. Such is not the case now. I often suspect that many unions have outlived their usefulness.

And now begins the countdown for some impassioned but unreasoned defense of the labor movement and all the benefit it continues to bring to Americans.

James / February 7, 2008 10:37 AM

Civil liability? You don't know much about how labor laws work, do you? Right now the system is so biased against unions and employees that any attempted action is pretty much futile.

Haliburton / KBR was just let off the hook for the gang rape and imprisonment of one of their employees because of some arbitration clause in her non-union contract.

Get that? Businesses can commit crimes against their employees without legal accountability.

Welcome to your world. It only gets worse from here.

(And don't forget to call yer buds in right-to-work Tennessee where a number of plants have just closed and moved operations overseas - I suppose you think unions had something to do with that too?)

Brian / February 7, 2008 11:39 AM


KBR are douchebags, but if you stop getting all your news from huffington, you would know that your read on the KBR case is way off.

This guy has an agenda (who doesn't) but the criticisms of the Huffington Post version of the story are worth consideration. His take: "Naive dummy is manipulated by evil trial lawyers seeking riches from deep pocketed corporation" is probably laying it on too thick, but even if you don't buy his version 100%, it raises a ton of questions.

Clearly, the MSM (and liberal blogsphere) 's version of events is way off base. I suspect it is one of those "this story is too good to fact check" situations like the Duke case.

Jacob / February 7, 2008 6:50 PM

Oh Mateus and Brian... now I know why Ramsin likes me to write on U of C stuff.

I'm wondering what the reasoning in both your arguements is... is it because you've had bad experiences with unionized employees at U of C that therefore unions are bad? I think Mateus you and I may share the same position at the university (similar initials to PH?), and some 743 employees are lazy, some are not. Does that then cinch the pro-union arguement? Probably not.
I'm glad you guys comment. If you want the pro-union rant... I can always oblige

Joe Bob / February 7, 2008 11:57 PM

Wow. This is kind of a crazy thread. Here is my input as to why the U of C is against labor unions: aren't they responsible for the blockbuster hit policies of neoconservativism? Weren't they responsible for the fission reaction? Aren't they responsible for the Chicago School of Economics, which led to the obsolescence of antitrust law? Didn't they have the famous Chicago Boys that devised policies that promoted and ultimately led to mass genocide in Chile under Augusto Pinochet? On the whole, the University of Chicago's contribution to society has, on the whole, not been a very positive one. It is an elitist institution whose policies and even its SCHOLARSHIP is completely self-serving. After all, this is the University that gave us Bill Krystol, Leo Strauss, Leon Kass, and Paul Wolfowitz -- Lord knows where I would be without them!

Oh, wait, since we are talking about U of C, I have to put this in economics terms: if you run a cost-benefit analysis of what U of C has given the human race: the costs to humanity of following the hair-brained ideas of those social idiots far outweigh the benefits of a competitive marketplace. All that they care about are Nobel Prizes and the political power of the University.

The reason I do not want to vote for Barak Obama is because of his association with the University of Chicago. I can just imagine the lunatics he will bring into his cabinet from that shithole on the Midway.

Oh yeah ... Brian totally reinforces everything I think about the U of C. Above, Brian called a woman who was raped by her Halliburton co-workers a stripper/whore in so many words. CLASSY! Oh yeah, just because you say "supply and demand" does not mean you win the argument. Supply and demand does not apply to cartels (which U of C is a part of). All of the conservatives think that if they say, "it's economics 101 ... supply and demand," it's game - set -match: argument over. I win! As if supply and demand proves anything at all. Take economics 201, because then you will find out that there is an entire universe of variables ... not just supply and demand. However, you do go to University of Chicago: where someone shows up and says the word "economics" and everyone thinks you are a decendent of King Midas and your words turn shit into gold.

The fact is that labor unions, regulation, the market, and even personal feelings and vandettas paint the whole picture of trade. All of the factors work together to create an equilibrium -- to give one actor in that equation too much power would throw off the balance of the entire system. Some people - like Mateus (above) - want to be myopic and say that "labor unions are obsolete." These are the same people that say racism does not exist, and that things were WAY better under the Ulysses S. Grant administration. Such a view is unrealistic, and if labor unions have now "served their purpose" and it is "time to move on," our next Presidential election will be centered around bringing labor unions back, because the system will be so out of whack. That would only be fitting, though ... since we still argue publicly about teaching evolution in schools, even though that was argued between 1900 and 1925. The good 'ole days! Why not move the entire political discourse in this country fully back to the late 19th century!!!

Mateus / February 8, 2008 6:25 AM

Joe Bob, you seem to be yet anotherr person who disavows economics because you don't like what it reveals to you. It's a great way to conduct quantitative social analysis in a dispassionate way, when practiced correctly of course.

Being of South American extraction, I can also tell you that you are woefully misinformed on the Chicago Boys. They were technocrats, not politicians, and had nothing to do with the brutal anti-opposition policies of Pinochet. The country is a text book example of successful application of orthodox ecnomic principles, and this is a drect result of the U of C.

The Chicago Boys instuted initially difficult but wise and pragmatic economic policies that have made Chile the only stable country in South America. No wild currency fluctuations, no IMF intervention, no massive debt defaults. Transparency International also rates it as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, ahead of the US I might add. The same can not be said about my native Brasil, or Argentina, or Venezuela, or any of the rest. Pinochet's assumption of power is indefensible. However this was through no machination of nerdy Chilean econ PhDs in Hyde park.

As for the KBR story, I had not read of this previously. It also is indefensible, but I would submit that this is the exception and not the rule. Terrible things still happen in the workplace, but the extent to which it happens is surely lower now than before, and because of the threat of legal action rather than the actions of some teamster rep. We wouldn't all be required to attend sexual harrassment, diversity, sensitivity and other types of courses at our employers if civil liability did not exist. It clearly has had an affect on the behavior of firms.

James / February 8, 2008 8:58 AM

Sorry, but I didn't read the Huff Post article which you mention.

Still doesn't change the fact that arbitration is no substitute for the justice system. If the victims version of events is true, she deserves her day in court. If not true, she will surely be proven wrong.

Arbitration may work for pay or scheduling disputes, but this is way beyond that.

Joe Bob / February 8, 2008 11:12 AM

I disavow economics because I don't like what it reveals to me?!!!???! How would you know anything of the sort. I am completely open to any information that can provide some sort of truth.

The problem is: people give too much weight to economic analysis. The U of C is a TEXTBOOK example of a community of scholars, being given too much credit for making a simple equation. You define the parameters - and if it creates a noticeable RESULT, all of a sudden you are Christ himself. I agree that economic analysis is a good way to get some SIMPLE meaningful social data. IT IS NOT THE ONLY THING OUT THERE!!!!!!!!

That is what you people don't understand. There is literally a UNIVERSE of variables at play ... not just your economics equation. By the way, the only way the Chicago Boy's policies would have worked in '73 - '85 was to have a dictator like Pinochet. They were wildly unpopular policies for a long time, because they required social upheaval, and the only way to do that was by suppression. Yeah, the Chicago Boys came up with an equation -- Pinochet applied it. I guess it would be unfair to blame the U of C for that. So I guess I am misinformed about it (thank you University of Chicago for giving me this Mateus who has enlightened me!!!!). Since I am so misinformed about Chile, why don't we talk about something I do know about: Chicago.

The University of Chicago is responsible for the BRILLIANT social and urban policy of HIGH-RISE SECTION 8 HOUSING in Chicago: a well-thought-out plan, taking all factors into account. That was really their coup de grace.

It is really typical of a U of C person to attack ONE TINY little MINISCULE fact in my entire post above as if he is deconstructing my entire argument. Well, you didn't. And your attempt to do it was pothetic. I quote your collegue: "Pardon the rant, but aren't U of C students supposed to be smart?"

eric / February 8, 2008 8:31 PM

here's an idea. Why don't you work construction one summer as non-union and another as union. Bonus, work for a small family run company so you can find out first-hand all the details about bidding for projects, insurance, wages, etc.

then you can write an informed post about pro/con unions. Plus, some good old fashioned work would probably do you good.


About the Author(s)

Jacob Lesniewski is a transplanted New Yorker and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. While he loves Chicago, his biggest fear is that his daughters will become Bulls fans.

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