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Main Dish: Poverty

At a school of plenty, cafeteria workers get screwed.

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Case Western Reserve's literature includes liberal deployment of words like "community," "leadership," "partnership," and the ever-popular "commitment to excellence." It's the kind of sloganeering used by most universities, which fancy themselves as beacons of enlightenment on par with the College of Cardinals -- only without the funny hats.

But in the world of advanced scholarship, principles tend to cave faster than France in The Big One when it comes to money (see anything involving the NCAA). For more than two years, 200 Case cafeteria workers have tried to organize under the flag of the hotel and restaurant employees union. With an average wage of $6.50 an hour, many remain on welfare so their kids will have health insurance.

It might seem a simple case of cruel economics. Low-end jobs pay low-end wages. But at Case, student workers have a minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. They presumably need a greater safety net because . . . well . . . who's gonna cover the Zima bill?

Administrators note that cafeteria workers aren't technically school employees. They toil for Sodhexo/Marriott, which contracts with Case. The university further asserts that wages are comparable to those of union cafeteria workers at other schools. And Case does support the right of workers to organize. It just wants that election to be governed by the National Labor Relations Board, to ensure it's conducted "democratically," without "intimidation" or "retribution," wrote Senior Vice President Rhonda Gross in a letter to union officials.

All of which sounds swell and high-minded -- until one begins to deconstruct, as academics like to say.

Case essentially argues that, because this involves an outside contractor, this ain't its beef. Au contraire, my little pointy heads. The school can demand anything in a contract, including a higher wage. And the university -- with a $1 billion endowment and a record $180 million in donations in 2001 alone -- has the jack to cover it.

Equally counterfeit are Case's wage claims. Cleveland State cafeteria workers receive an average of 75 cents more per hour. Not big money, but the bonus round comes with the benefits: paid vacation, more holidays, a grievance procedure, and that all-important health care for just five bucks a month.

Yet the crux of the fight rests with Case's insistence on an NLRB election. It's a government-supervised vote by secret ballot -- kind of like a conventional election, except the loser can appeal till hell freezes over (think of Jane Campbell not taking office until 2004, after Ray Pierce's appeals are exhausted).

When Case last lost an NLRB election, it spent over two years fighting the outcome in court. And that battle involved just three maintenance workers. People making $6.50 an hour can't afford a multiyear court battle.

The union wants Case to back a card-check election, by which workers simply fill out cards saying, "Yeah, I want a union," and the company and school agree to not campaign against it. Case is right to insist that Sodhexo not be prohibited from arguing against the union. It's a university, for chrissakes. How can it hinder speech? But at the same time, Gross's fear that this method is riper for "retribution" and "intimidation" is, to employ the scientific term, utter bullshit.

The school offers no evidence of intimidation. In fact, the union has organized 1,000 workers over the past two years at Browns Stadium, Jacobs Field, Radisson, and Ramada, using the card-check election. "I'd invite anyone to talk to any one of those 1,000 people and ask if they were coerced into signing that union card," says President Ken Ilg.

Which leaves Case with essentially no argument at all. Of course, universities are places where doing what's right is left to lofty debate and incomprehensible prose. So the next time workers want to feed their kids, or take little Johnny to the doctor, let them pay in slogans. It's the only kind of currency backed by Case.

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