Speedup comes to the Ivy League

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Classic movie buffs will remember the factory scene in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times. The boss keeps turning up the speed of the production line, and soon the workers are moving in a frenzy to keep up. The management technique of increasing profits by getting more production out of each worker was known by the term “speedup.”

Today, speedup has moved beyond the assembly line, to blue-, pink- and white-collar jobs in retail, healthcare, call centers – every corner of the economy. According to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, “American businesses are boosting productivity by having U.S. employees do more work for less pay.” He cites Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing that in the last year, output increased 4.1 percent, while unit labor costs dropped by 1.9 percent. So it should come as no surprise that profits are up, while working families are struggling.

Colleges and universities also reflect the response of business to the economic crisis, using it as an opportunity to “restructure.” In New Haven, Conn., in the ivy-covered buildings of Yale University, “They aren’t replacing workers who retire or leave,” said one staff member, “and they aren’t cutting back on the work.”

“Hundreds of positions have been lost through layoffs, restructuring, attrition and retirements and not replaced,” according to a public letter to Yale President Levin, sent by the more than 5,000 members of UNITE HERE locals 34, 35 and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. The result, according to the letter, “is a university in which many critical departments are now understaffed, those who remain at work are overburdened, and numerous vacant jobs are left unfilled.”

One clerical union leader reports, “People are accepting more work without being compensated for it. Management says, so-and-so retired this year so let’s all pitch in.”

In the Yale library system, many unfilled positions remain after retirements, transfers and layoffs. The result is a greater workload for those remaining, and a loss of service to library patrons. Because of the short staffing, there is no one to cover if someone calls in sick – a complaint echoed in dining halls, the health plan and throughout the university.

Yale now uses a computer program for custodial work assignments, according to Chief Steward Meg Riccio. But the computer doesn’t know what’s in a room. A custodian might be allowed only three minutes to clean a conference room, despite the need to move and clean around chairs, tables and equipment. Overall, there has been a decrease of about 25 full-time custodians cleaning the same number of buildings. In dining halls, Riccio says, 40-hour positions are being replaced with 20-hour jobs, putting pressure on the other workers.

Even graduate students and teachers are affected. Less time is being allowed to complete graduate work, and in some departments graduate teachers are expected to handle larger undergraduate sections. GESO, the graduate teachers’ union, charges that Yale is using the economic crisis as an opportunity to accelerate its transformation into a global corporation based on a “business organization” model that includes speed-up of research and restructuring teaching. As a result, graduate teachers at Yale are seeing their common interests with public workers fighting for union rights in Wisconsin and, locally, in New Haven, according to a GESO activist.

The unions at Yale have won some victories, but it’s a hard fight, according to one leader. “If people go to the union and say they’re piling on work, we can take on the fight. But when workers don’t complain, management takes advantage. It’s a battle to build confidence that the union will support you.”

The three Yale unions – service and maintenance, clerical and technical, and graduate teachers – have responded with a coordinated approach, stressing solidarity with each other, with other unions and with the people of New Haven. Whether they are custodians or teachers, Yale workers are aware of speedup, layoffs and insecurity – just like industrial workers and public sector workers. This common experience contributed to the outpouring of 1,000 Yale union members, joining with a thousand New Haven area public and private sector union and community members on March 30. The theme was “We Are One.”


Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.