Back in May at the University of Chicago, this happened:
Two locksmiths with medical conditions were told to repair locks on the fourth floor of the Administration Building during the day. Stephen Clarke, the locksmith who originally responded to the emergency repair, has had two hip replacement surgeries during his 23 years as an employee of the University. According to Clarke, when he asked Kevin Ahn, his immediate supervisor, if he could use the elevator due to his medical condition, Ahn said no. Clarke was unable to perform the work, and Elliot Lounsbury, a second locksmith who has asthma, was called to perform the repairs. Lounsbury also asked Ahn if he could use the elevator to access the fourth floor, was denied, and ended up climbing the stairs to the fourth floor.
Clarke and Lounsbury were told they had to haul their asthma and hip replacements up four flights of stairs because the University of Chicago has had a policy of forbidding workers from using the elevators in this building, which houses the President’s office, during daytime hours. As the university’s director of labor relations put it: “The University has requested that maintenance and repair workers should normally use the public stairway in the Administration Building rather than the two public elevators.”
Upstairs, downstairs was once a metaphor for how the lower and higher orders of Edwardian England lived (servants downstairs, masters upstairs). Today, it’s a literal rendition of the daily grind of workers at our most elite universities.
After five months of agitation, including the threat of a rally and support from undergraduates and graduate students who are organizing their own union, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer has at last issued a statement reversing the policy: “Let me state in the simplest of terms what the policy actually is: the elevators are for everybody’s use.”
So I ask you: If this is what it takes for workers at an elite American university to be able to use an elevator—a university that is very much in the public eye and thus susceptible to public pressure—what must it take for workers around the country, in small factories and far-off hamlets, to secure their basic rights and privileges?
That is a question I wish our academic theorists of democracy would think some more about.
While we’re on the topic of unions and universities, there was this salutary report from Inside Higher Ed the other day:
The authors of a paper released this year surveyed similar graduate students at universities with and without unions about pay and also the student-faculty relationship. The study found unionized graduate students earn more, on average. And on various measures of student-faculty relations, the survey found either no difference or (in some cases) better relations at unionized campuses.
The paper (abstract available here) appears in ILR Review, published by Cornell University.
“These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees,” says the paper, by Sean E. Rogers, assistant professor of management at New Mexico State University; Adrienne E. Eaton, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University; and Paula B. Voos, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers.
Much of the study focuses on student-faculty relations, and whether—as union critics fear—the presence of collective bargaining turns a mentoring relationship into an adversarial one. The graduate students were asked to respond to a series of statements about their professors as a measure of how they perceived their relationships. On many issues, there were not statistically significant differences. But on a number, the differences pointed to better relations at unionized campuses. Unionized graduate students were more likely than others to say their advisers accepted them as professionals, served as role models for them and were effective in their roles.
We often hear how liberals belong to the reality-based community and conservatives to the faith-based community. But given how resistant tenured faculty—including the most liberal—are to findings like these, perhaps we should revise our sense of who belongs where.