University wages reflect economic disparity

by Scott Laderman

I can’t even begin to estimate how many times I’ve heard Americans proudly assert, without really knowing why, “We’re number one!” During the Persian Gulf War, this became something of an obscene mantra as the United States leveled Iraq’s civilian infrastructure and set in motion the ongoing physical and psychological debilitation of its population. Apparently some Americans believed being the planet’s “number one” military hegemony was a matter of national pride.

Well, here’s another one to be proud of: On Friday, just days before the Labor Day holiday, an agency of the United Nations confirmed the United States is “number one” in terms of the time workers spend on the job. According to a study released by the International Labor Organization, Americans work more hours each year than do workers in any other industrial nation. As reported in a September 1 article in The New York Times, the study found “Americans work 137 hours (about three and one-half weeks) more a year than Japanese workers, 260 hours (about six and one-half weeks) more a year than British workers, and 499 hours (about 12 and one-half weeks) more a year than German workers.”

No doubt some will celebrate these findings as good news. To those employing salaried professionals, for instance, this increased bang for the buck represents a remarkable achievement. But from the perspective of the lawyers, investment bankers and other white-collar workers putting in 60-plus-hour weeks – or the many more people toiling in two or three jobs with no vacation and no benefits just to pay bills – the
outlook probably doesn’t appear quite so rosy.

While it’s too early for economists to develop a national portrait – this will have to wait until the release of comprehensive census data next year – early indications suggest the economic growth of the late 1990s did little to better the financial lot of most Americans. In New York and California, according to one August 31 New York Times report, the “poor got a little poorer, the rich got a lot richer, and the large group in the middle emerged slightly worse off than when the decade began.”

Last week Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, wrote of her experiences as a volunteer. “I serve on the soup kitchen committee at my church and see many families forced to make ends meet by eating at the soup kitchen. Many of those who frequent our soup kitchen work full-time jobs that do not pay livable wages. I hate to admit it, but we are underwriting the costs of employers paying sub-livable wages … The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that over 50 percent of new jobs created in the society don’t pay enough to lift a family of three out of poverty … It’s time for these outlaw businesses to stop doing a job on their workers.”

So just who are these outlaws?

In 1999 University President Mark Yudof observed that “$12, $13, even $15 [per hour] isn’t a living wage.” Yet, shamefully, approximately three out of every four University bargaining unit employees earn less than $15 per hour. And according to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which is currently negotiating a new contract with the administration, “88.5 percent of University AFSCME employees do not earn a livable wage” – as determined by the Jobs Now Coalition using criteria for a single parent with two children.

It’s no wonder, then, that many workers at the University are upset. For months, they’ve been seeking reasonable pay and the maintenance of affordable health coverage, but the administration has yet to agree to their requests, preferring instead to alter the employees’ benefits in an effort to cut spending.

Of course, not everyone employed by the University is hurting financially. The union calculated that from 1989 to 1999 the president experienced a real wage increase of 73.8 percent. And during that same time, the senior vice president’s salary jumped a startling 162 percent. In fact, according to AFSCME, the number of salaries University-wide at or above $100,000 per year increased from 311 in 1994 to 1,075 in 1999. Included in this bracket are the relatively outrageous wages of the football and basketball coaches, both making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

So are their salaries and benefits “on the table” in the administration’s drive to reduce University expenditures? Don’t bet on it. As is typical in the United States, the burden at the University is falling on those least able to afford it.

President Yudof has constantly stressed the need for higher faculty salaries in order to recruit prestigious or promising professors, thus raising the University’s intellectual profile. This is a worthy objective. But increased compensation for faculty mustn’t come while non-teaching employees cannot meet basic needs for themselves and their families. Such a scenario reflects poorly on the University of Minnesota, and in simple human terms is not right. The administration should do what is just, and agree to its workers’ principal request: a livable wage with the present benefits structure kept intact.

University employees are holding a rally today at noon on Northrop Plaza. Express your solidarity by joining them. If you won’t, who will?


Scott Laderman’s column appears
biweekly. He welcomes comments at
[email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]