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Livable wages: labor laws

The push for higher entry-level wages raises significant questions about the unionization of workers at the University

At the living wage rally last month, students protested what they called the unfairly low wages of many University workers. But not one of those workers joined the students and faculty members speaking at the event, and for the past few years, they have not been vocal about any problems they may have with the University as an employer.

Proponents of the living wage say this lack of protest is because the employees are concerned about their job security. "They're afraid of what will happen to their jobs if they speak out," organizer Greg Casar said.

The University, however, noted that it provides a stronger sense of job security than workers may be allowed elsewhere. Nevertheless, this concern about potentially losing one's job raises questions not just about University policy, but also about national and state labor laws.

Organizing at the University \nDuring the rally, organizers read anonymous statements by workers unhappy with their pay or working conditions at the University. They said these workers were not willing to speak in person at the rally because they feared repercussions from the University such as job loss or an undesirable reassignment. Similarly, Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, said ununionized or weakly-unionized workers are vulnerable to intimidation or coercion by their employers.

"[An employer] might say something like, we hope your job here lasts and you get a raise, but if a union gets organized, well it's hard to say what will happen then," she said.

This kind of intimidation, Casar said, means students and faculty members have a responsibility to work for employee's rights and fair wages.

But workers at the University have not always been silent. During a living wage panel in September, English Prof. Susan Fraiman said workers here have been in a better position in the past to negotiate with the administration about issues such as wages, benefits and working conditions.

In January 2002, eight employees formed the Staff Union at U.Va., affiliating the organization with the Communication Workers of America. During the next six years, the union's membership grew into the hundreds. Consequently, they were able to bring attention to safety hazards and racial discrimination in addition to picketing for better wages and meeting with community and student groups about issues such as the possibility of a living wage.

The SUUVA lost its power during 2008, two years after it opposed the Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act, which gave the University greater autonomy from the state while decreasing its annual allocation of public funding. Fraiman said when the University fired former staff member Dena Bowers for circulating an e-mail critical of the act, fear of similar retaliation decreased support for the union, which then lost its CWA charter because of insufficient membership.

But the SUUVA's membership decrease also coincided with the economic downturn. Susan Carkeek, vice president and chief human resources officer, pointed out that the administration stood by its employees and did not, as many private businesses, lay off workers in response to the poor economy.\n"Workers here have benefits and a sense of security that they probably wouldn't be able to find anywhere else," she said, explaining that this, and not fear, accounts for their unwillingness to voice problems with the University. She also said the University is not opposed to legal unionization.\n\nLawful unionization: public workers

Workers may not tend to organize in large groups because they are unsure of what the collective worker effort can accomplish, said Charles Smith, president of the Virginia Local 3001 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Nevertheless, when united, workers can push for substantial change, he added. "Health benefits, overtime, pensions - these weren't given by the goodness of corporate hearts," he said. "They were brought about by workers."

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, giving labor unions the legal backing to negotiate with employers and stand up for the well-being of working citizens. Smith said this act - along with working people's own determined efforts - led to a period of strength for American unions. Particularly important, he said, was the act's granting of workers' rights to strike and collectively bargain with employers.

But public workers in Virginia were never given these rights because the act did not include those working for state entities. And although many states have extended the act's rights to their public employees, Virginia has not.

Thus, efforts to secure a living wage seem may doubly opposed; workers' ability to organize appears to be restricted by their status as state employees and - at least by some accounts - the University opposes unionization with the same intimidation approach as many private entities.

But Crouse-Mays said despite some disadvantages, unions still have much to offer Virginian workers, including combating the fear that union action might mean lost jobs. Federal law, she explained, could be amended to increase penalties for infraction by employers. Today, an employer that violates the National Labor Relations Act - for example, by firing an employee who showed interest in a starting a union - does not face serious repercussions. Often they only have to post a notice saying they will not do it again, she said.

She also said the National Labor Relations Board could more quickly process applications to hold union elections.

"When you petition the NLB to hold an election, you might be delayed as long as six months, and that time is a perfect opportunity for an employer to use scare tactics," she said. Without that delay, she said, we might have many more successful unions.

Lawful unionization: Right to Work\nBecause Virginia is a Right to Work state, established unions are not as powerful as they are in most other states. The law allows individual employees choose whether they want to join a union, which means the strength of an organization depends largely on workers' willingness to commit money and time outside of work.

"The National Labor Relations Act gave unions power like they'd never had before," said Patrick Semmens, director of legal information at the National Right to Work Foundation. "[Before Right to Work] unions had a monopoly on bargaining; they represented people who didn't always want to be represented."

Casar said Right to Work is a mixed bag for the living wage campaign. It is helpful in that it makes unionization a realistic long-term goal - because the University is less likely to resist the formation of a less-than-influential union - but potentially harmful in that even a well-organized union could not necessarily secure a living wage for both direct employees and contract workers.

But Smith was not as sure about its benefits because it makes it more difficult for unions to create a sense of solidarity among workers, to find time to educate workers about labor politics and to confront important issues collectively. In short, Smith said, Right to Work laws distance workers from labor issues and foster quietism.

It also could be argued that Right to Work potentially strengthens unions by encouraging them to fight for a membership base. Moreover, Crouse-Mays said giving workers the freedom to choose union membership is not as clearly detrimental as issues like penalties for employers who break labor laws.

Regardless, Casar noted that controversies about University politics and economics and debates about contract and labor laws may only be the surface level of deeper tensions.

"It doesn't take much thought to understand how much we depend on [employees] here," he said. But if they suddenly organized and decided to stop working, he continued, "it would be impossible to ignore the fact that we've alienated people within this community"


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