October 25, 2000

UPA Campaign To Unite Alumni, Service Workers

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The United Progressive Alumni (UPA) announced, yesterday in Anabel Taylor Hall, its campaign to coordinate the resources of Cornell alumni worldwide with the local efforts of University service workers to secure livable wages for all employees.

Working with the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP) and the Faculty United in Support of Employees (FUSE), the UPA called for increased awareness of minimum-wage standards in Tompkins County in anticipation of the negotiation and renewal of employee contracts this Spring 2001.

“Over the course of many years, all Cornell alumni have come to grips with the fact that we have earned diplomas — and the economic potential that it symbolizes — with the support of Cornell employees who weren’t even paid a livable wage,” said Donald Lifton ’67, coordinator of UPA.

The number and age of dependent children in an employee’s family determines the livable wage for an individual or a married couple living in Tompkins County. For a self-sufficient single adult with two young children, the minimum hourly wage is calculated at $16.21, while the minimum hourly wage for two adults with two young children is $8.95 per adult, according to a September 2000 study by the New York State Self-Sufficiency Standard Steering Committee.

“Forty percent of the workers [at Cornell] are at the edge of a livable wage. Hopefully, this is the year [service workers] will get closer to the middle of the pack,” said Harry Evans, president of the United Automobile Workers, which represents the University’s service workers, such as dining hall employees and custodians.

“A livable wage is driven by what it is like to live in a particular community. So the number tends to change according to [the community’s] circumstances. Taking all the laudable information that is gathered with the best of intentions and finding out what you do as an employer to translate that into pay is difficult,” said Mary Opperman, vice president of human resources.

Cornell pays service workers according to their job description, so the individual background of each employee does not determine his or her salary, according to Peter Tufford, director of Human Resources. “Cornell has no way of knowing every employee’s family situation, the number of dependents or family income,” Tufford explained.

Since the factors that determine a livable wage vary according to each individual employee, the UPA’s campaign focuses on generating support from alumni and faculty who recognize the potential for increasing employees’ overall wages, according to Lifton.

“When faculty [members were] thought to be grievously underpaid, they were earning four times as much as unionized employees,” said Prof. Paul Sawyer, English, a member of FUSE.

Working with the UPA, FUSE draws support and recognition of work done at the bottom of the income scale, according to Sawyer.

“Cornell’s influence on the local community is significant, but unfortunately it is not significant in reaching out to the local community,” said Anke Wessels, director of CRESP.

Archived article by Dan Webb