February 21, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Employer Cornell Steals Our Wages

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Cornell University is usually referred to as an academic institution comprised of an expansive and diverse teaching apparatus. It is also, however, an employer, something we do not think about often. Thousands of full-time workers, from Day-hall bureaucrats to food-service workers and janitors are on Cornell’s payroll. Not all employees are full-time workers, in fact, many are student workers, like me and probably you. 50% of Undergraduates are employed on campus. Food-service, libraries, gyms, research projects and class discussions all exist and function due to the hard work of the employees and students running their operations. This institution depends on its workers, and it so happens that thousands of these workers are also students.

Cornell prides itself with offering paid job opportunities and, by doing so, “preparing students for the real world.” This institution, however, doesn’t pay much attention to the actual employment conditions of its student-workers. Our wages amount to excessively less than our full-time counterpart, for identical work assignments. In the Cornell Dining department, for example, our wages amount to almost $5 per hour less. This is a blatant and unjustified discrimination in employment, paying two groups of workers different wages. The student body has become a pool of low-wage workers from which the university extracts value and ultimately profit.

A short quantitative examination of the facts will demonstrate this controversial assertion. Over the 2016 year, the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI, an inflation measurement) amounted to 2.1%. Simultaneously, my personal raise for the New Year, as a Cornell Dining worker, is of $0.15 added to my $10.10/hour wage, that is a 1.49% increase. This entails that the real wages of student workers in similar situations have decreased! While Cornell diminishes its remuneration of student workers, the Board of Trustees, the unelected and unaccountable ruling body of Cornell, approved a tuition increase by 3.5%, reaching an all-time high of $50,712.

An expected response to this concern is the claim that Cornell’s operating costs would rise with higher wages. It is foolish to believe that this is a necessary conclusion, especially concerning how tuition is already raising at incredible and absurd rates, as mentioned earlier. There is money in this institution; we have an endowment of 6 billion dollars, sitting in the coffers of corporations, chasing an interest rate which does not, and will never, come back to us. The money Cornell extracts from its students in tuition and low wages is only reinserted into academic investment when it is convenient to the financial mission of this university.

The reality is that we are low-wage part-time workers, not student benefitting from extra-academic experience. Therefore, our economic interests exist as such, independent from our status as students. We share the same fate than millions of precarious workers throughout this country. All the university offers in exchange for this condition is an outrageously expensive education and a diploma representing the hollow promise of future more noble working conditions.

Cornell University and its bureaucracy have never been questioned about these practices; I believe it is time to start doing just that. It sees us as nothing more than students, blinding itself from the complex relationship it entertains with us. From the moment we are on the payroll, we are workers. All workers deserve decent and just wages for their labor. Until now, student-workers have been denied such treatment and have been relegated to a second-class status. Let the ruling administration know that these practices will not stay unopposed.


Alec Noel Curtis Desbordes is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.