The Undergraduate Association Senate’s recent talks with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615 have been sold as a way to join two entities in pursuit of a similar goal: administrative transparency on the pending budget cuts at MIT. Certainly, this is an admirable objective, but it’s really just a means to an end. A call for transparency in the budget just adds an extra layer of review in ensuring that the best items remain funded and the right items get cut.
Clearly, both the undergraduates and the union would like to be able to weigh in on what gets funding and what doesn’t. Heck, so would I, and in my ideal budget, the line item for the LIST Media Test Wall in Building 56 would be replaced with a program to replace the display with Rock Band 2. Or maybe just a giant rock with a Livestrong band on it, I’m not particularly picky.
As a student body though, we have a good understanding of what we want included in our budget: UROPs and research labs, REX events, toilet paper for the bathrooms, colored chalk for Professor Sadoway, upkeep for Athena clusters, and so on. In other words, we want to ensure that MIT maintains the research, events, and nuances that define the Institute.
The Service Employees International union, however, doesn’t share our aspirations. Representing approximately 550 service staff at MIT, the union by definition serves their wants first, and the original document illustrated that. Weightily titled, “Joint Statement Concerning the Recession and Budget Cuts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” the proposal first put forth before Senate stated that, “MIT is solely responsible for the investment decisions it makes. We reject the argument that MIT is simply a helpless victim of the market. As students and workers, we did not make the decisions leading to the budgetary crisis at MIT. Therefore, we should not be forced to suffer the consequences.”
And yet, the representative of the union defended claims like this because he felt the SEIU and its member were, “part of the community.” If that’s the case though, one would think the union would be offering to make cuts in their own budgets if it was for the benefit of the community. Not so. In fact, the union representative based a large portion of his arguments on the idea that MIT’s budget cuts were premature or ill-advised, and called for the use of the endowment to help fund operations.
Whether this claim is representative of the short-sighted thinking that is unfortunately rampant among unions or, instead, a fundamental misunderstanding of budgets is impossible to tell, but either way it poses a threat to the financial integrity of the Institute. Calling for broad budget cuts may have been premature when the Dow hovered around 14,000 points, but in the midst of a recession it’s simply prudent financial planning.
And while the MIT Investment Management Company responsible for our endowment certainly is free to move assets around as they wish, expecting gains even in a bear market is wishful thinking at best. Like it or not, every budget item at MIT is tied together, and is ultimately influenced by the state of the economy as a whole.
Consider the consequences of drawing down our endowment to promote higher levels of spending today. A smaller endowment will yield less interest in the future, which will require us to either continue drawing down the endowment or raise funds some other way if we maintain current levels of spending. The first option is unsustainable, and the second is infeasible.
Much of what the union advocates is hidden by the claim that MIT, as a non-profit educational institution, should not act like a business. But really, do the laws of economics and banking suddenly not apply when you’re teaching calculus as opposed to selling computers or building cars? If the SEIU could give me a way to do this, they’d either win the Nobel Prize or be the next Bernie Madoff.
But perhaps the best reason why the union does not have the best interests of students in mind can be summarized by this simple statement: “We don’t want to hurt the living standards for our workers at this point.”
I’m glad they’re looking out for their workers (it is what union dues are for), but this represents a level of greed and selfishness normally only attributed to AIG executives. So, while graduating seniors struggle to find jobs, while PhD and Masters students watch their funding evaporate, and while families all across the country make do with less, the SEIU claims that it is not yet appropriate to cut benefits for its workers. It was this same line of thinking by union leaders that drove the “Big Three” automakers to cut corners on their cars while their workers retired at 50 with full pensions.
Simply put, unions have never acknowledged the irreconcilable paradox of their actions: astronomical benefits and pay undermine the financial integrity of very company that pays them. And without the company, there would be no jobs at all.
It is the same case here. For now, this statement has been tabled at the request of the SEIU, but the UA should reject it entirely. MIT students have nothing to gain from an association with the Service Employees Union, and we have so much to lose if they succeed. Like all choices in society, this one arises out of scarcity. With only a limited budget, we cannot fund all of our desires.
While the SEIU chooses to ignore it, scarcity also provides the answer to our problem. In a time when all students and staff are being asked to cut back, the union is obligated to share our pain. Moreover, for every worker in the union, five are outside of it, meaning there is no shortage of MIT employees who think they don’t need a union. The UA should follow their lead and ignore this legislation and the union that supports it as out of touch with the realities of today and ultimately irrelevant.