University agrees to ‘benefits’ for subcontracted workers

Sean Collins Walsh

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University administrators agreed to provide subcontracted workers with several “community benefits” Tuesday, marking the first tangible victory for the Northwestern Living Wage Campaign.

The eight items include improved shuttle and parking services, continuing education subsidies and full access to the University Library, according to a list distributed by NU. For most of the benefits, the University has promised to absorb the costs. For the others, outside organizations volunteered to provide a free service for the workers. U.S. Bank, for example, will teach informal classes on topics like balancing a check book or “creating savings.”

“This is being well received by the food service workers and custodial service workers that I talked to this afternoon,” said Maurice Nix, a Sodexo employee and Norris University Center’s union steward. “These were topics that were discussed when I first came here.”

A living wage, according to the campaign’s Web site, is “how much income a family of a certain composition in a given place must earn to adequately meet their basic needs.” Using data from the nonprofit Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, the NLWC considers the living wage in northern Cook County to be $13.23 per hour plus health care.

Although nearly all workers directly employed by NU earn this amount or more, student activists are working to make this a reality for the school’s subcontracted laborers who receive their paychecks from corporations like Sodexo or Aramark.

The University has not issued an official statement on the campaign, but University President Morton O. Schapiro said the concept of establishing a finite minimum wage for NU workers was “bad economics,” in an interview with The Daily last quarter.

Providing “community benefits” to subcontracted workers has been the only plan explicitly supported by both the campaign and the administration.

“They offered to help publicize this, which I think is productive,” said Eugene Sunshine, NU’s senior vice president for business and finance.

Sunshine met with NLWC members Tuesday afternoon as he released the benefits. Campaign Coordinator Matthew Fischler attended the meeting.

“These community benefits show a great commitment,” the Weinberg senior said. “The biggest win for a lot of these workers is the parking deal.”

After discussing the benefits, Fischler said he asked Sunshine about a “clarity” issue in a frequently asked questions document distributed by the University last quarter.

The document was created and distributed by University Spokesman Al Cubbage on Feb. 24, when about 370 members of the NU community marched from The Arch to Schapiro’s office in an NLWC-organized demonstration. In one paragraph, Cubbage wrote that only 50 or fewer of NU’s roughly 5,000 employees earn below the living wage. In another paragraph, he wrote that adopting a living wage policy would cost $3.3 million to $4 million, a figure that has changed several times since it was released.

Fischler said the document is ambiguous because the FAQ does not list the number of subcontracted workers at NU, making the 50-person total appear to be the sole reason for the multimillion dollar cost.

After affirming the veracity of the individual facts, Sunshine said he would re-examine the document for clarity.

“I told him we would look at that and clarify it,” he said. “And I told them there are a number of errors in your fact sheet that could be corrected as well.”

Sunshine said he will suggest revisions for the NLWC’s online fact sheet in the near