Having been away when the strike hit, I am perhaps unduly perplexed as to some aspects of it.
Here’s a quick summary of what I (think I) understand, and what I’m fairly sure I don’t know about the economic issues.
I think that there are about 450 mostly janitorial employees in the would-be bargaining unit. This includes both the Coral Gables campus and the Medical School (and perhaps the Rosenstiel campus too?). The workers’ current grievance is with UNICCO, which contracts with UM. The UM contract is only one of many held by UNICCO.
Most people I’ve talked to believe Donna Shalala could end all this with a phone call and money. Whether that’s true or not, UM’s leverage is both economic and moral, and especially the moral aspect is a reason why one might reasonably expect Donna Shalala to take a leadership role.
One thing that seems generally agreed is that whether or not there are any current constraints on the extent to which the University can insert itself into what is in form a dispute between its contractor and the contractor’s employees, this contract ends soon, and there are fewer limits on UM’s ability to announce what terms it will wish to put into the next contract, be it with UNICCO or a competitor. If UM were to announce that the next contract will require a minimum wage of $N per hour, or a specific level of health benefits, that would be legal, subject only to questions of timing (I’m told that were the announcement too close to a unionization vote it might be seen as an unfair labor practice); the downside from UM’s point of view is that it would undercut UNICCO, which the University seems strangely loath to do, and would ultimately cost money. How much money is itself an interesting question (see below).
As to the specific desires of the would-be bargaining unit, there are, I gather, at least four families of issues, each of which raises factual questions of its own.
First, there is the allegation of unsafe working conditions, primarily at the Medical School campus. I would have thought that even a moderately well-managed university would take every allegation of endangerment to life or limb on its premises extremely seriously. I am very puzzled as to why the University hasn’t broken out this piece of the controversy and dealt with it, or at least thoroughly investigated it, expeditiously. I would have thought that this should really be defined as a safety (and liability!) issue, not a financial dispute, both to defuse it, and because that is in essence what’s at issue.
Second, there is the issue of how the workers should be polled as to their desire to form a union. The SEIU wants to have workers sign cards, until it accumulates the amount that triggers a duty to recognize the union; UNICCO says it prefers a ballot of the employees which tends to be more favorable to management. Strangely, I’m told that in many other places UNICCO co-exists fine with unions, and has even agreed to card drives in a large number of locations. Why UNICCO is playing such hardball here is thus something of a mystery. Some have speculated that UNICCO is only doing what the University wants, or what UNICCO thinks the University wants, or what various mid- or even top-level administrators may have told it that the University wants. It’s all quite obscure.
Third, there is the issue of medical benefits. All of us at UM get much lousier medical benefits than we did 15 years ago — something which I gather makes us no different from almost everyone else in the USA. There were years when the premium increases ate my salary increase net of taxes. We pay more than we used to and get less (unless we choose the plan where we don’t pay much and get almost nothing). As I understand it, the UNICCO workers get an even poorer deal than UM employees, combined with the fact that since their salaries are so low, high-cost medical plans are not really a realistic option for them if they wish to continue to indulge their life-long practice of purchasing food and shelter. But I have no idea what specifically the would-be bargaining unit is asking for, or even if they’ve made a specific demand, much less what that would cost. I suspect that as there’s no recognized union yet, there’s probably no specific demand, just “better”.
Fourth, there’s the issue of salary. Again, there not being a recognized bargaining unit, I presume there isn’t an actual salary demand. But that needn’t stop us from trying to get some ballpark figures. (There’s some history here by the way. In 2001 the UM Faculty Senate issued a report on what it would take to raise UNICCO workers to a living wage,
which so far I can’t find on line but I’m told estimated it would be about $2.5 million per year for what was then a smaller number of workers [UPDATE: I found a copy of the 2001 Report and Recommendations of Ad Hoc Faculty Senate Committee on the Status of Unicco Employees]. Donna Shalala issued a reply in 2002.)
I gather there are about 450 UNICCO workers on campus. I don’t know what their median salary is. I do know that the union and the newspapers have been spotlighting workers who make $6.80/hr, only a few cents above the state minimum wage. I don’t know what the prevailing wage in Miami-Dade is for similar work, but I’m pretty sure I don’t care, just as I don’t much care what Harvard pays workers either. I assume that UM chose the low bidder to outsource to, and that UNICCO is paying the market-clearing, i.e. rock-bottom, wage it can get away with in this unskilled-labor-saturated market. But that’s not the whole story. Ideally, a University should be run more like a community than are factories. We should try to pay everyone on campus at least a ‘living wage’ to the extent that we have the means to do so.
The University’s resources are substantial, but so are the claims on it. Its pockets are large but not unlimited. It too exists in a competitive market; there are constraints on the extent to which it can raise tuition while still attracting a diverse student body. Higher prices tend to burden students with more debt. If prices can’t be raised to cover the cost of raises, then something else will have to give somewhere.
Before embarking on a complex analysis of balancing factors, though, it would be useful to know how much is really at stake. Are we talking about a large amount of money? How large?
I know approximately nothing about the costs of health insurance; certainly the forms I have to fill out every year which supposedly tell me about costs and benefits are complex and confusing. But I do know simple arithmetic.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (which Google seems to like),
The level of the living wage is usually determined by consulting the federal poverty guidelines for a specific family size. Often, living wage levels are equal to what a full-year, full-time worker would need to earn to support a family of four at the poverty line ($17,690 a year, or $8.20 an hour, in 2000). Some living wage rates are set equal to 130% of the poverty line, which is the maximum income a family can have and still be eligible for food stamps. The rationale behind some living wage proposals is that these jobs should pay enough so that these families do not need government assistance.
Let’s work with the low end of the 100%-130% range: $8.20 in year 2000 dollars. According to the federal government’s inflation calculator, $8.20 in 2000 dollars equals $9.44 in 2006 dollars.
If we then assume the worst case, that the strike poster people’s $6.80/hr is representative of the entire would-be bargaining unit, then that makes a difference of $2.64/hr. Multiply that by 40 hours, 52 weeks, and 450 workers, and we seem to be talking about $2,471,040 per year.
There are reasons to suspect this nearly $2.5 million is both an under and over estimate. It’s an overestimate if the union has been showcasing its worst-paid employees. [Note that the Wikipedia currently reports that the average pay of UM’s custodial workers is $7.53 an hour; if that’s accurate, the cost of making up the difference between the average wage and the living wage is only $1.78 million per year, about 70% of the number I’m using.]
On the other hand, it may be an under-estimate because raising UNICCO’s salaries to a ‘living wage’ might have knock-on effects on other UM salaries the are either below that level also, or which traditionally have enjoyed a differential. For example, if clerical workers have usually had a pay rate pegged so much above gardeners, they will tend to demand a higher wage to keep the relative difference intact. (That said, one should beware of slippery slope arguments here; as my torts teacher one said, why would one argue that one shouldn’t do the right thing now for fear of having to do the right thing later?)
The $2.5 million/year is admittedly a pretty clumsy estimate. And it focuses on the wages rather than the health benefits (although an extra hundred a week, pre-tax — for that’s close to the maximum that we’re talking about here — might cover some health insurance). But it does give us something to work with. It’s not a tiny tiny number, but it’s not a massive number either in the context of UM’s annual operating budget of about $1.3 billion — — under 0.2%. UM has about 15,000 full-time equivalent students at all levels. If one made the worst-case assumption that 100% of this cost were passed on to each student, without any reductions in any other expense to compensate nor any drawdown on the vast endowment recently raised by the University, that would mean tuition would need to rise almost $165 per student per year to cover the gap [or $117.50 using the Wikipedia number].
This is all very rough: I invite commentary, supplementation, and correction. I am most certainly not a labor lawyer.