Sunday, March 1, 2015

CALL A MEETING



Harry Targ

Now, you know you’re underpaid, but the boss says you ain’t;
He speeds up the work till you’re ‘bout to faint,
You may be down and out, but you ain’t beaten,
Pass out a leaflet and call a meetin’
Talk it over - speak your mind -
Decide to do something about it.

“Talking Union”, Pete Seeger, You Tube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=C13JFv4JfH8)

Friday, February 27 was one of those days when you feel that maybe there is hope for workers to have a voice in their futures.  A week before, the Human Relations Department at Purdue University distributed electronically a summary statement about a new “paid time off” policy that is to go into effect July 1, 2015. As is common with newly proposed plans distributed electronically, changes in leave policy--sick leave, personal business days, vacation, and short term disability leave--were difficult for many to follow. Comparisons with the soon to be obsolete plan were unclear. When asked about the plan, HR spokespersons claimed it was generally beneficial to the faculty, management and administrative staff, and the 3,500 other workers who keep the university running.

Because there were many questions about the changes, little transparency about its development, and a narrow window of input from faculty and staff, University Senate Chairwoman Patricia Hart organized an informational meeting for interested Purdue employees. President Hart believed it was important to “call a meetin’” so that Purdue employees could more fully understand and give input concerning the new plan.

I arrived about ten minutes before the meeting was to start at 8 a.m. Most of the coffee provided was gone (and the bagels as well) as hundreds of staff and faculty came to hear about the plan and give feedback to its promoters. Seven hundred and fifty Purdue employees were assembled, including probably 200 who were too late to find a seat. Most of them stood for the over two hours of the meeting.

Human Resources personnel presented the central features of the new “Paid Time Off” plan. Claims were made about why the old one had to be scrapped, how the new one favorably compared with plans offered by local corporations, and how it was similar to “peer institutions,” that is comparable universities. I was not sure I understood what was being summarized but when the floor was opened for comments the unanimity of criticisms coupled with the sense of outrage from virtually all of the 750 attendees made the reality of the new policy clear.

The bottom line was that staff, the secretaries, plumbers, technicians, dormitory workers, student counsellors, electricians, janitors, the 3,500 workers who keep this huge institution functioning, were going to lose leave time, six days a year. Also they no longer would be able to accumulate various leave days to be paid out in dollars upon retirement.

At least one hundred employees, staff and faculty, spoke about how economically vulnerable workers at Purdue University had become: losing benefits over time, receiving wages that did not keep up with inflation, and incurring greater costs from revisions of the workers’ health plan. Workers stood up and spoke, usually identifying themselves and the units they worked in, articulating the suffering they had experienced trying to earn a living wage, providing for families, and caring for themselves and sick loved ones. Workers who had long years of service explained how the once attractive benefits that they used to receive had been taken away little by little.

As Chairwoman Hart pointed out as the session opened: “In recent years, staff at Purdue University has felt squeezed from all sides, and those on the bottom of the pile are feeling crushed. Austerity management has meant that, through attrition, one person may be doing the job of two or three. Many live with the constant stress of worrying that they might be downsized. Did you know that up to 14% of the clerical and service staff who work full time have second jobs?” She reported that many clerical and service staff live below the federal poverty guidelines (Patricia Hart, Chairperson University Senate, “Chair Remarks on Leaves Policy,” February 27, 2015, www.purdue.edu/senate/).

Purdue employees mirror the higher percentages of Indiana workers in general who are experiencing increased difficulties from the new wave of state and federal austerity policies imposed for more than a decade. On November 10, 2014, the Indiana Association of United Ways issued a 250 page report on the condition of financial hardship in five states, including Indiana. The study by a research team at Rutgers University is titled Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed or ALICE (www.unitedwayalice.org/). ALICE refers to households with incomes that are above the poverty line but below “the basic cost of living.” The startling data revealed that:

-a third of Hoosier households cannot afford adequate housing, food, health care, child care, and transportation.

-more precisely 14 percent of households are below the poverty line and 23 percent above poverty but below the threshold out of ALICE, or earning enough to provide for the basic cost of living. 570,000 households are within the ALICE status and 353,000 below the poverty line.

-over 21 percent of households in every Indiana county are above poverty but below the capacity to provide for basic sustenance.

Referring to those within the ALICE category of wage earners who struggle to survive but earn less than what it takes to meet basic needs, Kathy Ertel, Board Chairperson of Indiana Association of United Ways said: “ALICE is our child care worker, our retail clerk, the CAN who cares for our grandparents, and our delivery driver” (Roger L. Frick, “Groundbreaking Study Reveals 37% of Hoosier Households Struggle With the Basics,” Indiana Association of United Ways, November 10, 2014, Roger.Frick@iauw.org).

Assessing the current state of the Indiana economy depends upon where one is located in terms of economic, political, or professional position. Those Indiana men, women, and children who come from the 37 percent of households who earn less, at, or slightly above the poverty line probably have a negative view of their futures. For them, the tax breaks for the rich and the austerity policies for the poor are not positive. 

There was a palpable sense in the meeting room that the 750 attendees (from staff, to faculty, to those middle management attendees) knew they were part of a common struggle of all workers to protect and enhance a quality of life that was being threatened by their Purdue employer and the state and nation’s economic and political elites, the one percent. One speaker at the meeting asked the representative from Human Resources whether the four local companies that the HR committee compared with the new Purdue program were union or not. The spokesperson admitted they were not.

We will see what happens, but the Chairwoman of the University Senate (which is largely a faculty senate) took the first step Pete Seeger recommended in the song he sang often in the 1930s when industrial unions organized millions of workers in the 1930s: “Call a Meetin.’”