Public Values

Why pay cuts for McMaster's cleaners are bad for us all

If this group of employees is forced to accept wage reductions, many will be pushed into poverty.

If these employees take wage reductions, many will be pushed into poverty - Wayne Wayne Lewchuk

McMaster University and employees represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are currently engaged in collective bargaining. Many of these employees are recent immigrants. Many are women and single parents. Qlthough some of the lowest paid people on campus, they are responsible for custodial work and other tasks critical to the smooth functioning of the University.

The employer, the university administration, is demanding that many of these employees accept wage cuts and make bigger contributions to benefit costs.

The university administration argues (correctly) that budgets are tight. They also argue (correctly, again) that the wage package they are proposing is close to the market wage for similar types of employees in the Hamilton region.

Is this justification for reducing the wages of one of the lowest paid groups on campus?

While I am not involved in any way in these negotiations, I am motivated to make my views known because I value the role of the university as a forum for informed debate and a voice for a better society. This includes the medical discoveries made by faculty members in the Health Sciences and the discovery of new materials and sources of energy by faculty members in Engineering and the Sciences. But, it also includes contributions from faculty in the Humanities and the Social Sciences leading to better ways of living together and ways to realize what is best about us as human beings. The current actions of the University administration are, in my view, inconsistent with these contributions. They cannot go unchallenged.

As Social Scientists, we cannot simply argue in our research papers for a better society and then not do anything. To accept the current budget balancing strategies of the University administration is tantamount to letting the University commercialize harmful drugs or inappropriate materials for its financial gain.

What the university administration has failed to fully account for is the full cost that its actions will have on the employees themselves and the mission of the University.

If this group of employees is forced to accept wage reductions, many will be pushed into poverty as defined by Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut-Off wage. A family of two working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks would need over $13 an hour to escape poverty and a family of four would need just under $20 an hour. But this is only part of the cost of these wage reductions. There is now strong evidence to show that families living in poverty are more likely to suffer health problems and that children living in poverty households are less successful in the long-term. Increasingly we refer to jobs that do not pay a living wage, that are insecure, and that provide limited benefits as precarious employment. My own research has shown that workers employed in precarious employment relationships suffer more health problems, including poorer mental health, more work related headaches and sleep problems.

It is not just these employees who will pay a price if these wage reductions are imposed on them. The mission of the University will also suffer. How can senior University officials argue for a just society and participate in the struggle against poverty in our community when they themselves are contributing to the problem? What credibility will researchers at the University have in claiming to be contributing to the improvement of society when they are members of an institution that is doing just the opposite? What message is this sending to students in our classrooms regarding the kind of society we stand for?

There are always trade-offs to be made given the economic realities of the University. Resources are never sufficient to satisfy all needs. Today, the University administration is simply making the wrong trade-offs in pushing its lowest waged workers into poverty and precarity. It is ignoring the marvelous discoveries of its own faculty. I call on the University administration to take advantage of what we know about better ways of living together and what is best about us as human beings. I call on McMaster's administration to implement a living wage policy that would protect the lowest paid members of our community from wage cuts.

Wayne Lewchuk is a professor in McMaster University's school of labour studies and department of economics, and co-director of the research program on Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario.

Posted: October 06, 2010

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