Sunday, April 14, 2013

What Didn't the Unions Do?

     I currently work as a temporary custodian at M.A.T.C. (Madison Area Technical College) at the Truax Campus in Madison, Wisconsin. Hired through private staffing agency Hiring and Staff Services, I temporarily replaced a unionized worker on sick leave, and when that employee returned, I replaced a non-unionized temporary worker.
     I do not plan to pursue continued employment as an M.A.T.C. custodian past April 2014, when - as has been recently decided - the union's contract expires, and they begin to get laid off through attrition.
The following is a letter to the editor which I wrote to the M.A.T.C. newspaper the Clarion; it has not been published because I have refused to cut half of its content in order to fit a 250-word limit.

Dear Editor,
In the Clarion’s March 6th issue, staff writer Kate Palmer argued that M.A.T.C. should continue employing unionized custodial staff. The American Federation of Teachers (A.F.T.) agrees, characterizing the alternative – private employment of custodians – as “outsourcing”.
Among their reasons: private companies may have lax background check standards, non-A.F.T. custodians have different standards regarding compensation, and $17,000 annually is not enough for people with children to feed.
The arguments seem compelling, but what do they suggest to the average young person – who has no dependents, a sparse resume, and few specialized skills (and about a quarter of whom have been arrested for non-violent drug crimes) – about his job prospects with the college?
It suggests that he has less of a right to work to earn the means to survive if he has been arrested, and that he should not be encouraged to delegate the right to negotiate with management on his behalf to whomsoever he chooses (be it a private company, or a union which is more radical in its compensation demands than the established union).
According to Palmer, M.A.T.C. custodians perform “hard, dirty labor”. However, some entry-level M.A.T.C. custodians are engaged in physical work for only half of their shifts. While A.F.T. asserts that private companies suffer from high turnover rates, quality of work, and training problems, entry-level janitorial work requires little training, and no specialized skills.
While A.F.T. says taxpayers are unwilling to pay taxes to workers lacking “pride in their performance”, to keep collective bargaining at its current prevalence – rather than to offer custodians raises for better performance, negotiating with them directly on the basis of their own individual merits and skills – risks retention of under-performing employees.
Additionally, A.F.T.’s concern about the potential for imperfect maintenance under private contracting is somewhat valid now among unionized custodial staffs. Furthermore, A.F.T.’s concern that to cut unionized custodian jobs could lead to cutting teacher pay is counter-intuitive, because the abhorrence of custodial department cuts could be made to appear to justify more aggressive pursuit of cuts in teachers’ compensation.
Differences in the compensation standards of entry-level custodians versus teachers – and of custodians who have specialized custodial skills – should be tolerated, because the latter set of workers are engaged in work that is more productive than basic, entry-level custodial upkeep.
MATC should implement efficiency recommendations the workers have made, and workers should be given individual incentive to use spare time in their work days to find ways to improve the efficiency of workplace tasks.
Taking these steps would save money and effort, decreasing turnover rates and increasing job dedication, decrease the risk of teacher pay cuts, increase chances of custodian raises, increase compensation to taxpayers, and improve custodial services to teachers and students.
Minimum wage laws have been characterized as “cutting the bottom rungs off of a ladder”. In a similar vein, the wage system is a staircase, and the continuum of individual compensation standards is an escalator; while a broken escalator should eventually be repaired, it should not be off-limits to stair-climbers.

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