COMMENTARY: U. president disrespected campus workers in Town Hall
Certainly, with the time of giving thanks just passing, we all ought not to overlook Rutgers workers in our expressions of gratitude. It should be obvious to any member of the Rutgers community the extent to which the University relies on its faculty and staff for its quotidian functions. The services on which Rutgers, as an institution, relies are provided by a host of University employees, employees who too often remain invisible to and under-appreciated by the community at large.
Many of these workers are students seeking to cope with ever-increasing costs of attendance and living. But student labor, like most labor at Rutgers, is often under-valued, both in the hearts of the community and financially. University President Robert L. Barchi and the Rutgers administration value dining hall workers, for example, at the state mandated minimum wage, which as of now is set at $8.44 per hour. Furthermore, all Rutgers Dining Services employees are subjected to a mandatory meal deduction of $3.60 per shift, technically putting their daily wage at below the minimum. The pay rates of many other student jobs are not much better, making it difficult for working class students to make ends meet. The opening in 2016 of the Student Food Pantry devoted to Rutgers students is a glaring symptom of this problem, an insufficient bandage on the septic wound of student food insecurity, a wound allowed to fester by Barchi and the Rutgers administration.
These paltry wages, as well as the already mentioned rise in cost of attendance, are curious when one examines the all too veiled financial situation at Rutgers. Rutgers runs a yearly surplus and is gathering ever-growing “unrestricted reserves.” As reported by Daily Targum contributor Nick Huber on Sept. 28, 2016 in his article “Rutgers unrestricted reserves rise to $770 million,” the yearly increase in these unrestricted funds, according to local AAUP-AFT president and Rutgers professor David Hughes, demonstrates Rutgers has more money than it is spending. That surplus, according to Hughes in the article, amounted to $74 million over what the Rutgers Board of Governors anticipated in 2014-2015. But the exact purpose of this surplus and these “unrestricted reserves” is unclear. Hughes has concerns with University explanations for the money and its allocations. We as a community should share in this concern, especially after revelations in the Paradise Papers leaked that Rutgers is investing in offshore hedge funds, as reported in the Guardian by reporter Ed Pilkington in his article “Top US Universities use Offshore Funds to Grow their Huge Endowments.” Clearly, Barchi and the Rutgers administration do all they can to prevent the Rutgers community from knowing where University money is and what exactly is being done with it.
In light of all this surplus money, it is inexcusable for Barchi and others to suppress wages for University workers in the name of keeping costs low. It is also unforgivable what Barchi said recently at a Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) town hall. Rutgers student Danny Taylor, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and an organizer with Rutgers United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), who are standing with University unions in demanding a $15 minimum wage for campus workers, confronted the president with a story of how he struggled with food insecurity which resulted in his losing of “almost 10 pounds.” Taylor lays the blame on his low wages in his dining services job, which is again effectively below minimum wage. After hearing Taylor’s firsthand experience of the hurt University policy is causing students, Barchi, who makes more than $650,000 yearly with the possibility of an additional almost $100,000 in bonuses, exhibited condescension and contempt, calling Taylor’s account a “schtick.” Rightfully indignant, Taylor insisted “this schtick is my life,” and the room followed suit in condemning the president’s words. Barchi, realizing his mistake, walked his comments back, but is it not revealing that this contempt for student workers and their suffering is his first instinct? The video of the Nov. 16 town hall is worth watching and is available on RUSA’s Facebook page under the title “Town Hall with Dr. Barchi.” Danny Taylor speaks at about the 22-minute mark.
We as part of the Rutgers community must clearly audit the priorities of Barchi and other officials. Taylor’s story is sadly only one among many, and certainly these stories do not end with student workers. Barchi has repeatedly shown disregard for University students and workers. Thus, it is time for us as a community to unite behind our workers and unions in current demands for a $15 minimum wage at Rutgers. We must do what Barchi refuses to do. The money is there. The time is now for a livable wage at Rutgers.
Matthew Widzins is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science.
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