April 10, 2009

Univ. Employees Seek Student Support in Contract Talks

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Dave Sepulveda is not one to see the glass half empty. His gregarious manner and golden jheri curl have earned him the affectionate nickname “Happy Dave” amongst patrons of Okenshield’s, where he is a card- swiper.
But at the end of this semester, contract negotiations for employees across the University could put a little less pep in Dave’s infamous dance steps.
As employee contracts expire June 30, workers will begin contract re-negotiation processes June 1, backed by the United Auto Workers’ Local 2300 union. With the economy grinding against rock bottom, the substandard compensation of University workers have only been exacerbated, causing even Sepulveda to question how much the University can provide for employees, he said.
“You see a lot of people I work with, but you aren’t aware of their sources of income,” Sepulveda said. “We’re sort of in a bad position to ask for a raise because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”
In anticipation of the upcoming contract discussions, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, the Cornell Democrats and the Bully Pulpit sponsored a forum yesterday in Ives Hall featuring three local representatives of the United Auto Workers , which represents approximately 1,450 local workers, 1,200 of which work at Cornell.
The forum opened with clips from a notorious 1992 student film, “In the Shadow of the Tower,” which featured workers describing their impoverished living circumstances. A harsh lambaste of the University’s responsibility and commitment to its employees, the video set the tone for what was to be a critical, if not justifiably concerned forum.
The three women representing the local UAW chapter immediately began the forum by setting the scene for the contemporary worker landscape at Cornell –– 17 years after the film’s production. Noting that conditions have improved significantly since the 1992 film, the trio emphasized that workers issues are coming to a head now in the face of the economic crisis and sweeping University budget cuts.
The women also pointed to the University’s cooperation with workers in the past as evidence that the current contract negotiations could potentially be resolved.
[img_assist|nid=36758|title=Bread and butter|desc=Terry Sharpe, president of UAW Local 2300, and Karen Ross discuss Cornell workers’ issues and their upcoming contract renewal.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]“The situation is getting worse and worse,” said Karen Ross, a Cornell Dining worker and UAW union steward. “They haven’t even been laid off yet, and they’re falling behind on their bills. They don’t even give us a chance, they don’t even let us know when the work is there.”
Terry Sharpe, president of the UAW, expressed her support and love of the campus, but her weariness with the miserly managerial practices in certain departments.
“I love Cornell University, it’s a very nice place to work,” Sharpe said. “I just don’t agree with some of their practices.”
Among these allegedly dubious “practices” is the University policy to not pay workers unemployment compensation when they are temporarily laid off over summer and winter breaks. This incites a mad scramble for jobs which, more often than not, are part-time and cannot support the workers’ families, she said.
The policy is in accordance with New York State law, which allows all educational institutions to make the choice whether or not to pay unemployment compensation over temporary lay-off periods. According to UAW representatives, the choice is a matter of the University’s moral mettle.
“I want a fair contract for all our employees. I want them to respect seniority … and do the right thing, and pay unemployment if the work is unavailable,” Sharpe said.
According to Sharpe, the UAW has been lobbying in Albany for several years trying to get the law changed to mandatory payment over unemployment periods, to no avail. While workers wait for the state government to act on their behalf, they must also convince University contractors that they are worth more than a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.
Sharpe regaled the crowd with several anecdotes of University employees counseling or serving as guidance figures for students, something she said should be taken into account with the contracts.
More than a spotlight on the abject circumstances of University workers, the forum also served as a call to action. After a question and answer session, a 15 minute brainstorming discussion took place on how to raise awareness of the issue.
The goal is to not only discuss, but act, according to COLA organizers.
“The purpose of this meeting was to educate the Cornell community, and also to serve as a launching pad for a multi-month campaign,” said Chris Duni ’09, a representative of COLA. “There are similar campaigns going on in other campuses right now. Our ultimate goal is to link students and workers across the nation.”