Upon picking up last Tuesday’s Argus, I was immediately struck by the headline ’No Wesploitation’—a highly dramatic title, and certainly one which enticed me into reading the attendant article. According to the writer, apparently the officials at North College are busily engaged in a masterwork of exploitative cruelty designed to make our noble labor unions bend their knees to losing money every year while toiling ever harder to serve their capitalist masters. It is nothing less than slavery that North College demands, we are told, and to make matters worse, the Union might even be forced out by the introduction of subcontractors! Somebody call Upton Sinclair back from the grave, this is really a crisis!
At least, that’s what one would be led to believe from reading the article. However, close scrutiny of its sources reveal them (with one exception) to be either from students affiliated with the union or from union members themselves. This does not necessarily mean that those quotes are wrong, but it certainly gives us reason for pause, since the author of every quote clearly has a motivation to tell half-truths, or worse. Moreover, a really analytical reader would pick up on some inconsistencies in the story which effectively puncture the swelling tumor of thinly-disguised pro-union moral outrage which infects the article, and which also threaten to undo the central contention embodied by the many pamphlets and posters distributed around campus. That contention is that “Wesleyan is unfair.” However, if one actually examines the union’s arguments, one finds gaping holes which make the arguments smack more of a cynical appeal to Wesleyan students’ predisposition towards “social justice” than of a principled fight against exploitation.
Before proceeding, however, I want to make one thing clear—this column is not intended as an attack upon all unions, or even all unions at this school. Unions can serve the very valuable purpose of representing a counterbalance to the incorporation of capital, and they are essential to the workings of any free market economy. However, that does not mean they are immune from criticism in the same way businesses are not immune from criticism. So with that said, let’s consider the union’s arguments.
Firstly, Dean Canalia, the apparently anointed spokesperson for the union, informs us that the union “will be losing money every year under this contract.” At first blush, this quote is shocking and offensive—how could the University be so foolish as to imagine that union members would accept such an absurd contract? But then Canalia changes the time frame a few paragraphs later, for the writer informs us that, “Canalia said that the increased insurance premiums would mean that almost all Physical Plant workers would begin losing money in three years.” So first we are told that the loss of money will occur immediately, and then we are told that it will occur in three years. Moreover, the first quote, which uses “we”, implies that all Physical Plant workers are the victims of this maleficent corporate greed, whereas the second quote tells the reader that almost all Physical Plant workers are victims. Clearly, Canalia can’t keep his own story straight and this should give us cause for concern. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the second quote represents reality and that the first quote is nothing but a shock quote designed to appeal to our sensitivities. Why are these union members necessarily going to lose money?
The answer is that the University’s most recent offer—a pay raise of 2.5 percent coupled with a lump sum raise of $2,500 and an expectation that union members pay 33 percent of their healthcare costs—is apparently financially unfair. To quote one flier, “While PPlant workers have been offered an annual raise of only 2.5%, they are expected to pay 120% more for health insurance.” Now, before we take this apparent statistical disparity as carte blanche to fly the hammer and sickle over Wesleyan, let’s consider two questions. Firstly, if this proposal is really so unfair, why did union officials “tentatively agree” to it, and secondly, is it really so unfair? The answer to the first question, I believe, becomes readily apparent once one answers the second one, and the answer to the second question is clearly, “Not necessarily.”
Consider this. The union frames the disparity in terms of percentages, rather than in finite sums. Why? Surely, it would be easier to say, “they’re expecting us to pay X while only giving us a measly raise of Y!” But no, it’s, “they’re expecting us to pay X percent while only giving us a percentage raise of Y percent!” This is not only less effective rhetorically, but also potentially devious mathematically. Consider the following hypothetical. Suppose the average union worker makes $100,000/year (probably far too high, but it’s a nice round number). Imagine that out of that, they spend $1,000/year on healthcare. Now imagine they get the 2.5 percent and $2,500 lump sum raise, but are required to suddenly pay 120 percent more for healthcare. This raises the costs of healthcare to roughly $2,220 ($1,000 x 2.2), while their raise gives them an extra $4,500. That leaves them a grand total of $2,280 in profit. I don’t pretend that this example represents reality, but if nothing else, it demonstrates that it is mathematically quite possible that this proposed raise covers the rise in healthcare costs with some left over, and by not giving us hard numbers, the union is leaving that question open either inadvertently or out of intentional dishonesty.
But to make matters worse, let’s use the union’s game of percentage calculation to look at their own plan, a five percent raise and a 26 percent payment towards healthcare. Wages clearly rise by five percent, but healthcare costs rise by 73 percent! Hold on just a minute! Weren’t statistical disparities like this “unfair” and financially unsafe? Why would the unions accept such a bargain and moreover, the union hasn’t even halved the healthcare increase! If it’s so “unfair,” why start out by capitulating to unfairness? Clearly, the financial argument is dubious at best.
The other argument advanced by union members is that this is an important time to stand strong because of the increased use of outside contractors. However, this is to ignore the disease and focus on the symptoms. The reason outside contractors get called in is because they represent a cheaper, hassle-free alternative to unions who frequently are so pushy that they spend 10 months turning your students against you so that their demonstrations will look bigger!
Ultimately, however, the Physical Plant union’s cynical use of inconsistent estimates with regard to how much money they will lose, mathematically ambiguous percentages rather than absolute numbers and appeals to student sentiment against competition from outside sources definitely proves one thing: we are being “Wesploited.”