Opinion

GUEST COMMENTARY

As you all know, the janitors are on strike. Since they are striking against their employer, UNICCO, you may be asking yourselves why the University of Miami has anything to do with the situation. Isn’t it just a labor dispute between UNICCO and its employees? Isn’t it right for the university to maintain neutrality in the face of this dispute? The answer to these questions is-NO. It isn’t just a dispute between UNICCO and its employees and it isn’t right for the university to remain neutral.

It is worth pondering why this is so, since the university is in a position that we all find ourselves in today over and over again.

Suppose you want to buy a T-shirt. Two companies, A and B, offer substantially the same product, but you can buy it for $10 at A and $12 at B. The reason A is able to sell the product for so much less than B is that A has the T-shirt made by children in a Third World country who are paid next to nothing and work in very dangerous and unsanitary conditions for 14 hours a day. B, on the other hand, has the T-shirt made in the USA, where a variety of minimum wage and health and safety laws ensure that the people who make the T-shirts are much better off than their Third World counterparts. Naturally, you want to spend as little as you have to. There’s nothing wrong with that. But do you want to save two dollars and buy your T-shirt from the exploited workers or spend a little more and have your conscience rest easy?

Perhaps reasonable people could disagree in this case. But you get the point. If another company undercut A and sold the T-shirt for $8 and did it by enslaving people, paying them nothing and working them to death, would you be prepared to save two more dollars? If a fourth company charged two dollars more than B, but could thereby afford to give its T-shirt makers health insurance and a half-hour off for lunch, would you be happy to pay the extra money? Since everyone wants to spend as little as possible there is, unfortunately, what is called a race to the bottom. Conditions for workers making T-shirts will get as bad as they can as long as people still buy the T-shirts and don’t ask questions. The only thing stopping them are the laws that governments put in place and the buying power of those who want T-shirts.

What has all this got to do with the striking janitors? UM is a consumer that contracts with companies to maintain the grounds of the campus. Various companies offer to do so for a variety of prices. Obviously a company can offer to save UM money if it pays its employees less and gives them working conditions that are less safe and protected. There is a race to the bottom among companies that will be stopped only by the will of consumers, like UM, and laws to protect workers. The law requires a minimum wage for workers. Unfortunately, this is far below what is called a “living wage,” a geographically variable standard that many local authorities around the country have adopted to help keep people out of poverty. Besides, the laws have various loopholes that companies like UNICCO are expert at finding. For example, UNICCO can avoid paying money to fund Workers Compensation to employees injured on the job by firing and re-hiring workers on short-term contracts. So the laws have protected the UNICCO workers almost as much as they can. (Actually, the federal government’s National Labor Relations Board has investigated UNICCO and found “reasonable cause to believe” that UNICCO has violated various labor laws.) Now it’s up to the consumers, in this case the University of Miami, to say that they do not want to save a little money at the expense of having their grounds cleaned by people who are not paid enough to live on and do not have health insurance. Among universities, UM’s janitors are paid among the very lowest in the whole country. UM too needs to say it won’t buy sweatshop T-shirts and it won’t contract with companies who do not pay a living wage. How much more would UM have to pay UNICCO for UNICCO to be able to pay its workers a living wage and give them health insurance? Something between $3 million and $4 million a year. Is a good conscience worth that money? For a university that has just raised $1 billion, you bet!

Simon Evnine is an assistant professor in the philosophy department. He can be contacted at sevnine@miami.edu.

March 7, 2006

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