Last Friday, members and representatives from three MIT-affiliated unions came together in a student-worker solidarity gathering to discuss the current conditions facing MIT workers. Present at the meeting were representatives from the MIT Police Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615, and the Research, Development, and Technical Employees Union as well as Cambridge City Councilor E. Denise Simmons.
The discussion focused on layoffs, reduced hours and benefits, and upcoming contract negotiations between the MIT and the unions.
“MIT wants deep concessions … and wants to maintain the endowment at the expense of workers through layoffs … and benefit cuts…” said SEIU representative Matt Gulish during the event. “They [MIT] have the money to keep people working and keep the quality of life high.”
The situation for MIT police officers has never been easy but is getting worse, according to Alan McDonald of McDonald and Associates, who represents the MIT Campus Police Association. MIT is attempting to use the economic situation in the short term to make long term changes unfavorable to the police officers, he said.
“We’re okay with people making money and we like that people are making money; we just want to get some too,” said James Herms ’87 of the MIT Crime Club. Herms said that club membership is confidential, but claims that the club has “at least five active members.”
SEIU Local 615 is slated to start contract negotiations with MIT in about a week and a half. The union has yet to present its demands and they “don’t want MIT to have already made up their mind before negotiations,” said Gulish.
Simmons, who voted to pass last week’s resolution asking MIT and Harvard to stop laying off workers, said in a phone interview after the event that “as a council, it is necessary to be proactive.” Simmons is surprised that “MIT would take this backhall approach to dealing with their employees instead of being up-front,” she said. Unions help workers “bargain for what they deserve.” “At this time in the economy, we don’t want people choosing between health care and [paying off their] mortgage,” she said.
MIT Professor of Economics David Autor offered an alternative view when interviewed yesterday.
Universities are in a crunch for money and “in almost all areas where universities can reduce spending, they’re doing so,” Autor said.
He said that making it more difficult for employers to lay off their employees is not necessarily the solution: “Worse than letting people go is not allowing the employer to decide who it needs to let go … The problem with that is, they will stop employing unless they are sure that they are getting their money’s worth. It makes universities, or any employer, reluctant to hire.”
It can make them lean towards hiring temporary workers instead.
Autor also points out that universities do not tend to lay off workers arbitrarily.
“By and large, universities are much more reluctant to let workers go than regular sector employers. Many of these staff members are loyal long-term employees. We invest in them, and if we let them go, we lose people who have a valuable set of skills to us… We realize that this is very costly.”
As for whether the City would be benefit from restricting layoffs, “Even from the City’s perspective … if the university doesn’t lay off workers, it’s going to cut expenditures somewhere else … It is the case that if they don’t cut on one margin then they will cut on another and those cuts will have some effect on the city as well … I’m not saying that [it’s] necessarily one for one but it’s probably not zero.”
“It’s true that universities are non-profits and don’t pay taxes on much of what they do. However … they are huge employers and generate a lot of wealth and property value for the City.”
In the end though, “I can’t blame them [the City Council] … for feeling the harms of people getting laid off … Most alternative ways the Institute could cut expenditure might not have as direct a cost on Cambridge,” Autor said.
The event was sponsored and hosted by the MIT Crime Club and organized by MIT Student-Worker Alliance.