Earlier this week, in a dimly lit, overcrowded room in the basement of Jordan Hall on Butler University’s Northside campus, an event occurred with huge significance for the Indiana economy.
The economic leaders in that room were not business executives or politicians wearing suits and ties. They were cooks and cashiers and dishwashers, wearing black uniform shirts and pants along with chef hats and hairnets. For many, their clothes and their faces showed the effects of a long shift on their feet, cooking and serving meals and cleaning up afterward.
These Hoosiers are workers at Butler’s food-service operation, sub-contracted by the university to multi-national company Aramark. At their meeting this week, the workers approved their first contract, an agreement negotiated by their co-workers and their new union, UNITE HERE.
After eight months of negotiations — and some worker protests and displays of community and student support — the company and its
workers agreed to terms that included immediate raises and sustained wage increases over the life of the four-year contract. Starting salaries will be higher, health-care costs will drop, and the company agreed to match contributions to a 401(k) retirement plan. The contract also includes improved access to year-round employment, a critical issue for on-campus workers.
In reaching these terms, these Butler workers joined food service and campus operations workers at Marian University, who agreed to similar terms with Aramark last week. These new contracts mean that 500 service and hospitality workers, including workers at IUPUI and the Indianapolis International Airport, are now receiving higher wages and better benefits thanks to recent union contracts. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is working to earn similar contracts for our city’s janitors and security guards.
These developments are good news for all Hoosiers. For many of our neighbors, service-sector jobs are the only work available in our modern economy. These are sustainable jobs, an important feature in a state scarred by the exodus of high-paying manufacturing work. The tasks of washing dishes, cleaning hotel rooms and cooking meals are jobs that cannot be outsourced to a Bangladeshi sweatshop or to a call center overseas.
The workers at Butler, Marian and beyond are proving that such jobs have dignity, and do not have to be characterized by low pay and uncertain tenure. This week’s result is not an anomaly: Unionization of service-sector work has been shown to reliably and significantly increase workers’ wages and benefits.
In the early and mid-20th century, the union movement turned once low-paying manufacturing jobs into solid careers that allowed workers to buy homes and send their kids to college. Workers joining together can do the same for service-sector jobs today. Across Indianapolis, they have already started doing just that.
Quigley is a clinical professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law.