If Wilfrid Laurier University won’t pay a living wage, then who will?

Unions helped build a strong middle class in this country, with decent wages, benefits and pensions. But those gains are steadily slipping away along with union membership itself.

Just 29 per cent of Canadian employees belonged to a union in 2014, according to Statistics Canada. Changes in the economy, such as the decline in manufacturing jobs over the past few decades, mean that the percentage of union members in the workforce has steadily fallen since 1981, when nearly 38 per cent were unionized.

Young people particularly are shut out. In 2012, less than 15 per cent of employees aged 17 to 24 belonged to a union. But 35 per cent of people aged 55 to 64 did.

This is the big-picture backdrop for the strike involving 110 unionized custodians, grounds workers and tradespeople who work at Wilfrid Laurier University’s campus in Waterloo.

The scenario facing these unionized workers, about half of whom are custodians, is sadly familiar.

(Full disclosure: I taught communication studies and English courses part-time at Laurier for many years. I no longer teach there, but will belong to the faculty union until 2018.)

The university proposes that existing custodians would keep their $21-an-hour jobs. But new positions — created when someone leaves or when new hires are needed because of expansion on campus — would not be unionized.

Instead, these jobs would be contracted out to a private company. Not only would the workers not belong to a union, they would be paid far less than people doing exactly the same work in the same workplace.

The union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says the university already hired nine non-union custodians for a new building on University Avenue, and those workers are paid $12.90 an hour.

You can’t raise a family on that. Even a single person can barely live on it.

Laurier is not the first employer to propose a two-tiered agreement in which recently hired workers do the same job as their colleagues who have been there longer, but for less money and worse working conditions. Plenty of workplaces now have these arrangements.

But should a university be different?

Jim Butler, Laurier’s vice-president: finance and administration, said in a statement that any agreement “must be in the best interests of the institution and its students.”

Didn’t he leave someone out?

In part because we expect a lot of them, universities are possibly the most privileged institutions we have.

Government funding is plentiful (just check the Ontario “sunshine list” if you want to see the salaries of professors and administrators).

There’s no shortage of customers, and there is always plenty of money for innovative research and new strategies.

What there isn’t money for, apparently, are living wages for the people who mop the floors and clean the toilets.

Not everyone has what it takes to get a PhD in computer science. If we want to live in a society that is compassionate as well as smart, we have to make sure that all kinds of people can earn a decent living.

If Wilfrid Laurier University, from its relatively comfortable position, can’t or won’t show us how this can be done, who will?