Back in May at the University of Chicago, this happened (h/t Micah Uetricht):
Two locksmiths with medical conditions were told to repair locks on the fourth floor of the Administration Building during the day. Stephen Clarke, the locksmith who originally responded to the emergency repair, has had two hip replacement surgeries during his 23 years as an employee of the University. According to Clarke, when he asked Kevin Ahn, his immediate supervisor, if he could use the elevator due to his medical condition, Ahn said no. Clarke was unable to perform the work, and Elliot Lounsbury, a second locksmith who has asthma, was called to perform the repairs. Lounsbury also asked Ahn if he could use the elevator to access the fourth floor, was denied, and ended up climbing the stairs to the fourth floor.
The reason Clarke and Lounsbury were told they had to walk up four flights of stairs—with their hip replacements and asthma—is that the University of Chicago has had a policy of forbidding workers from using the elevators in the Administration Building during daytime hours. As the university’s director of labor relations put it: “The University has requested that maintenance and repair workers should normally use the public stairway in the Administration Building rather than the two public elevators.”
Upstairs, downstairs was once a metaphor for how the lower and higher orders of Edwardian Britain lived (servants downstairs, masters upstairs). Nowadays, it’s a literal rendition of the lives of workers at our most elite universities.
After five months of agitation, including the threat of a rally and support from undergraduates and graduate students who are organizing their own union, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer has at last issued a statement reversing the policy: “Let me state in the simplest of terms what the policy actually is: the elevators are for everybody’s use.”
If this is what it takes workers to be able to use an elevator at an elite university, a university that is very much in the public eye and susceptible to public pressure, what must it take workers around the country, in small factories and far-off hamlets, to secure more basic rights and privileges? This is a question I wish our academic theorists of democracy would think some more about.