#MeToo. News and social media are flooded with the viral hashtag, tagging stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment. While the stories are personal and tragically pervasive, there is an undercurrent of truth that all women experience either on a daily basis or consistently throughout their lives: a general lack of equality and a desire to be heard.
In October 2015, 600 clerical, professional, paraprofessional and administrative employees of Northern Illinois University were certified as a union. The group, often mislabeled as “the secretaries,” had not seen wage increases in almost six years and felt an overall lack of voice with their employer. For decades, the university made decisions without consulting their years of experience and institutional knowledge, often to the detriment of NIU operations and student experience. Organizing as a workforce offered the opportunity to sit down with the university and truly have a say in its working conditions.
More than 80 percent of this workforce is female. While male-dominated professions, such as grounds, building services, and police on campus, saw wage increases and had long-standing collective bargaining agreements with the university, the 480-plus women of Local 1890 worked significantly below the minimum wage rates set by other state of universities in Illinois.
The most widely held position by these employees, office support specialist, has a starting annual wage of $21,012. This is $5,021.51 per year behind the state average for this classification, which is $26,033.51. An office support associate with NIU has a starting wage of $19,068, $4,036.15 behind the state average of $23,104.15. About 91 percent of these positions are held by women.
Throughout negotiations, union proposals, many addressing the concerns of women in the workplace, have been met by the university with condescension and dismissal. A proposal by the union to include the Victims Economic Safety Security Act, legislation designed to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence, has been disregarded, while the employer proposes to limit the rights of employees by subjecting them to a rigorous process before exercising their legal rights of filing unfair labor practice charges against the employer with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
All this, if the university had its way in negotiations, makes enforcement of the contract and laws designed to protect women and workers in general, less accessible and, therefore, the employer less accountable. With no recourse, the workforce would remain subjugated, continuing cycles of poverty and abuse in the workplace.
An assault on women is not simply the sensational stories of rape or the everyday catcalling and harassment almost all women can speak to.
The more subtle degradation of women is seen in the attack on their right to participate as working members of society while also valuing their roles as mothers, sisters, wives, breadwinners and community members in general.
Treating women equally does not simply mean avoiding “locker room talk” in meetings or unwanted touching. It means recognizing a woman’s right to make a living wage, the same as any man. As a university and employer that recently appointed its first female president, Lisa Freeman, NIU has an opportunity to cultivate a respect for women in society by making its supposed value for women demonstrative and evident through a fair collective bargaining agreement.
• Sara Dorner is a staff representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 600 NIU employees with Local 1890