Support the UT sickout

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

[This article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, September 6, 2000, p. A-9.]

In his email to University of Texas employees this summer about the upcoming “sickout,” President Larry Faulkner solemnly explained that he wanted “to do everything possible to make sure that the law is fully understood within the University community.”

Unfortunately, the email — a not-so-veiled threat to discipline or fire staff members who participate in the sickout — missed a key legal point: the Texas law that denies public employees the right to organize violates international law.

In the state of Texas, public employees are not allowed to collectively bargain or strike. So, when the thousands of university staff members are fed up with low wages, shrinking benefits, unsafe working conditions for custodians, and disrespectful treatment, they cannot use most of the standard strategies of labor unions around the world. Hence, the sickout — for three days they will use sick time to convey to the administration their distress over the situation.

What do international legal standards say about this situation? Simply put, Texas is a rogue state.

Let’s start with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 document that set down basic principles for all nations, including the United States. Article 23 states, “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

Outside of Texas, it is widely understood that the right to belong to a union includes the right to act in concert with fellow union members. That means the right to engage in collective bargaining and conduct organized work stoppages, the very rights that Texas law denies to public employees.

Let’s move to the International Labor Organization, an independent agency of the United Nations. The United States is one of 175 member nations.

The ILO’s 1998 “Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work” states that member nations have an obligation “to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith” four key principles, the first of which is “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to
collective bargaining.”

The state of Texas, acting in decidedly bad faith, disrespects its own employees. It denies to us basic rights that were won long ago in most of the world and recognized by almost all nations as fundamental human rights.

These considerations are not just arid legalisms without practical effect. Because UT staff do not have the right to organize effectively, they must put up with consistently unfair treatment. This includes the steady erosion of benefits, with dental coverage eliminated this year and the price of dependent health coverage skyrocketing. It includes the plight of custodians, who have been downsized so much that effective workloads have doubled and tripled, and who are forced to work with hazardous chemicals without basic protection.

It includes the fact that some staff make $7.31 per hour, the UT minimum, when the price of living in Austin has gone through the roof. A “living wage” in Austin, meaning a wage that allows one to rent a place and buy food, is generally estimated at $9.16 per hour.

As an institution of higher learning supposedly devoted to the public good, the University of Texas should set an example to private corporations in its treatment of employees. Instead, it is even more predatory, taking full advantage of Texas’s archaic, discriminatory and immoral laws.

We will be among the students and faculty standing with staff members on Sept. 6-8. We will be teaching classes off-campus in solidarity, refusing to attend classes if professors don’t honor the sickout, and talking to our friends and colleagues about the need to support our fellow workers.

Actions like the proposed sickout succeed or fail entirely on the basis of public support. On Sept. 6-8, we hope that people around the state will show solidarity with the most vulnerable workers on this campus.