University employees choose to work

The University is under no obligation to pay us a living wage or to ensure a certain standard of living.

I don’t consider myself a defender of the administration, but as an AFSCME represented employee, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the position the union, supposedly “my” union, has taken as well as their willingness to use me as leverage in securing what amounts to a handout from taxpayers and tuition-paying students.

I, along with all other employees at the University, AFSCME-represented and otherwise, work on a voluntary basis. We are not assigned to jobs by government authority, but rather choose to work here based on a number of factors that we rank in priority including wages, benefits and location. The union has been touting this arbitrary notion of a “living wage” or lamenting the fact that University does not provide for our standard of living. But that begs the question, “Who decides our standard of living?”

In Thursday’s Duluth News Tribune an AFSCME employee complained that she only earned $19,000 a year. Yet in the same sentence it is stated that she is in a 10-month position only working 30 hours per week. In the union’s opinion, $14 per hour is not a living wage. I’m sure to a college student or a single person that could provide well enough. I’m sure for a single mother with two kids it is much tougher, probably nearly impossible to live on that. So is it the union’s contention that University should look at each employee and based on their current situation determine the employee’s “living wage?” Should people be paid differently for the same job?

The value of the work should be tied to the work itself, not the worker. Contrary to what the union would have us believe, the University is under no obligation to pay us a living wage or ensure a certain standard of living, whatever that might be. The University, as an employer, must place a value on the services provided by their employees based on the relative importance of the services to the University and the market price for those services. Inflation is a concern for everyone, and the University is not immune. Costs are rising. The University has decided that in order to retain its current workforce of AFSCME employees it can offer a certain percentage wage increase. That increase is not based on the current buying power of the Dollar; it is based on the value the University has placed on the work AFSCME employees do.

AFSCME employees, as individuals, are well within their rights to challenge the University’s determination and, if the University is not willing to offer more, they are free to seek employment somewhere that meets their individual demands better. That is their right. But it is perverse that the union is able to use federal and state laws to coerce the University into inflating wages beyond what the market has set or that the University is willing to pay. Worse, however, is that the union would demand that I, or anyone else, strike based on the union’s principles, not my own.

I agree with the union that the University has to re-evaluate how it compensates its administrators. I agree with the union that we should question how building a new football stadium at a time when budget dollars are tight fits in with the mission statement of this land-grant institution. But those battles should be fought directly, not with they-got-theirs-we-want-ours type arguments. The University also offers good benefits, allows employees to take classes tuition-free giving them a chance to increase their skills and marketability, and for AFSCME employees a 2 percent increase each year regardless of performance. Showing up for the job you get paid to do is now considered “loyalty.”

I accepted the University’s offer and am reporting to work because I feel that I am compensated fairly. If at any time in the future I want to raise my family’s standard of living and the University is not willing to pay me more, I will find employment elsewhere and the University will lose my services. That is the notion of voluntary contract. That is how the market works.

Patrick Russell is a University employee. Please send comments to [email protected]