Ababiy: Ensuring a livable wage for University of Minnesota workers

Comparing the University of Minnesota to Harvard’s employment history, contracting and unionization key to prosperous working conditions.

Jonathan Ababiy

A recent New York Times article took a fascinating look at an interesting Harvard employee, Martha Bonilla. She came into the country illegally, hiding under a pile of bananas in a truck. Now, Ms. Bonilla lives comfortably in a $350,000 home in a middle class neighborhood of Boston, with another home rented out to family. She takes vacations in Florida and pays $1700 a month for her daughter’s college education.

She is not a University administrator. A Google search reveals no LinkedIn profile with a laundry list of accomplishments, multiple graduate degrees nor shared articles about streamlining to create synergy in the higher education organizational policy. Nor does she teach, either, so she has no instructor page detailing years of highly paid research into the business equivalent of underwater basket weaving.

That’s because Bonilla has a food service job making sandwiches for executives taking extension courses at Harvard Business School. She makes more than $25 an hour, and with a part time job cooking at a dorm, she sometimes takes home more than $1,500 a week. The Times article duly noted that that’s more than the average salary of someone with a master’s degree.

The reason why? Since 2001, Harvard has experimented with letting workers from outside contractors receive the same pay and benefits they would get as direct Harvard employees. Unions, newly emboldened by the loss of college leverage that the threat of outside contracting carried, then bargained for better deals.

It’s really the opposite of what’s occured in the American economy, as a whole, and at our University.

Unions have continued their precipitous drop since the 1980s, with union membership now stalled at about half of what it was in 1983, even though union members make more than employees outside the shop, public or private. Unlike at Harvard, workers across the country have seen their power in the workplace sharply decline and with that, lower wages and less benefits.

Outsourcing, particularly at colleges and universities, has played a particularly strong role in preventing workers from making any significant gains. Jobs outsourced to outside contractors suck.

There is constant worker turnover because workers soon realize the jobs are locked to dead-end positions with low wages and no benefits. Outsourcing pays well for the outsourcer because, as numerous studies have shown, once jobs are outsourced they pay less in wages and skimp on the benefits that unions often fought hard for.

As unions continuing losing power and outsourcing grows in America, the University of Minnesota has become a staging ground in this fight and shown, disappointedly, that it is not up to, or anywhere near, Harvard’s task.

The University recently paid $500,000 successfully fighting unionization efforts by lecturers and has long outsourced its security and dining hall services — industries in which outsourcing has the strongest negative wage effects — to outside contractors.

The University does not have the small, country-sized endowment that Harvard uses to pay its workers handsomely, but it does have enough to not shortchange its workers and ensure living wages. It can spark the creation of the new middle class for Minneapolis and Minnesota. But it does not seem to take these steps.

As Sociologist Matthew Desmond recently wrote in a separate Times article, “… if we respect hard work, then we should reward it.” The University’s mission has lofty goals about serving the public and the citizens of Minnesota, but what better place to start helping then with its own employees? They are key to our learning environment, just as much as our professors and administrators — and certainly our athletic department. We should treat them as such.