Living Wage 101

Living Wage 101

Recently, after nine years of resolutely ignoring pleas, letters, e-mails, and the occasional phone call, I went to my first ever college alumni event. The reason was not a sudden burst of pride or the creeping nostalgia of age—rather it was seeing the Swarthmore living wage campaign in the news. Along with students at twenty other college campuses, Swatties spent a good part of last year causing a ruckus, marching up and down the beautifully manicured lawns, demanding meetings with the president, and publishing heartfelt manifestos. Although there was no Harvard-style sit-in, the movement was an important shift for the predominantly liberal but sleepy student body and an example of the way living wage campaigns have become a key economic justice issue both in cities and on college campuses.

Swarthmore likes to boast that it has one of the highest rates of racial and ethnic diversity of any college of its size and academic standing, not a small feat considering its location in a tiny, predominantly white and Lutheran hamlet outside of Philadelphia. According to President Al Bloom, approximately 24 percent of the student body are people of color—including international students. Yet the cleaning, dining, and maintenance staff—which is predominantly African-American—makes wages below the average necessary to feed and take care of a family, even after many years. “Essie Mae was here for thirty-nine years, and when she left she made $10.50 an hour,” Michelle Hartel, a dining room employee, told the local paper. Women’s Association for Women’s Alternatives, a national organization that helps campaigns develop living wage standards, calculated that to take care of rent, food, and basic necessities, a Swarthmore employee would need to make around $13.00 an hour. In 2000, minimum hiring wages ranged from $5.36 per hour to $8.53 per hour. The Swarthmore Living Wage Democracy Campaign sees the final minimum living wage as negotiable, but the basic premise of the campaign isn’t: People working full time should be able to support themselves and their families on their salary, and the administration has the moral responsibility to ensure all workers earn a livable wage.

The Swarthmore campaign came out of the Conscious Consumers student group, which focused on international issues—divestment and worldwide working conditions—until last fall when Kae Kalwick, an administrative assistant, came to speak to them about staff wages. Students began meeting one-on-one with staff to listen to their concerns: not only the need for a more livable wage, but also the lack of respect from both students and administrators and the lack of decision-making power (there is no union at Swarthmore, and a failed attempt at unionization eight years ago has not been repeated). “We decided to focus on wages because that was the most concrete thing,” says Sam Blair, a senior involved in the group.

In the first year of the campaign, Conscious Consumers gathered more than a thousand supporting signatures and met with the administration. Initially, the group was accused by some administrators and students of being too “confrontational” for Swarthmore’s Quaker style. “After the Harvard sit-in,” Blair says, “that changed. People started to understand what we were doing and why.” Still, the group has met with resistance from the administration. “It would be great,” President Al Bloom said in an interview, “if we lived in a world where people were paid justly. . .for the work they did and if the government provided the funds to make that possible. But as it is, we have to balance paying for the education of our students with paying for our staff.”

At the alumni event, Bloom argued that increasing staff wages would mean a cutback in educational services for students, including, possible cuts in “scholarships for low-income students.” As was the case during the South Africa divestment protests at Swarthmore in the late eighties, the administration seems to be saying that the disadvantaged have to pay (there is no talk, not surprisingly, of cutting back on an extra computer class or new building). The campaign argues that, given Swarthmore’s billion dollar endowment, it can’t morally afford not to pay the staff a living wage. For Kalwick, the living wage campaign is as crucial to students’ education as the classes they take. “One way Swarthmore could show itself as a true leader in social justice [would be] to model those principles in the way it treats all people on campus,” she said. “There is a lot of talk in Swarthmore classes about social justice. You can’t talk about race, gender, or any of these issues and not see what’s happening right under your nose. The living wage campaign is about bridging theory and practice.”

What Is a Living Wage?

The campaign’s premise, whether at the city, county, or campus level, is that federal and state minimum wages do not allow full-time workers to adequately support themselves or their families. The federal minimum wage was recently raised to an extravagant $5.15 an hour. That’s a whopping $10,712 a year before taxes, which doesn’t put you above the poverty line in most urban areas. Living wage campaigns seek to pass campus or local ordinances requiring the institution or city to pay workers enough to live. City campaigns affect city employees and any company above a certain size that does business with the city. Campus campaigns are most relevant for dining hall, maintenance, and grounds staff. The exact wage amount can be calculated in a number of ways. Many campaigns define the living wage as equivalent to the poverty line for a family of four (currently $8.20 per hour)—although, depending on the city, campaign demands have ranged from $6.25 per hour (New Orleans) to $12.37 per hour (Providence). With welfare-to-work “reform” touted as the way to get people off the rolls, the living wage campaigns are the logical moral conclusion—if you are going to require people to work to support themselves, then their jobs should pay enough to support them.

Since Harvard’s highly publicized and successful living wage campaign ended on May 8 after a twenty-one-day sit-in (the longest in the university’s history), living wage campaigns have gotten a boost of energy and media attention. “Winning a campaign [like Harvard’s] definitely helps,” says Jenn Kern, director of the Living Wage Resource Center run by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) “but we’d be here anyway. A living wage campaign gives people something very local and finite they can fight for.” Baltimore passed what is considered the first modern living wage ordinance in 1994, and since then campaigns have sprouted up in cities, counties, and on both urban and rural campuses. There are now sixty-seven living wage ordinances on the books and seventy-five active campaigns (including twenty-three on college campuses). These ordinances aren’t just in the traditionally liberal towns either; solidly Republican Suffolk County, New York, and Kankakee County, Illinois, have passed ordinances. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Bozeman, Montana, both have active campaigns.

The list of universities currently engaged in living wage battles reads like a high school student’s wish list. In addition to Harvard and Swarthmore, campaigns have been won or are being fought at Princeton, Wesleyan, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Brown, Stanford, American University, Earlham College, American University/George Washington School of Law, Fairfield University, and the University of Tennessee. At each of these colleges, it helps that well-heeled parents and alumni are joining the fight—blast-faxing the administration, picketing the Harvard Club in Boston, and generally being pains-in-the-ass until the administration takes note. There’s nothing like having your offspring holed up in Massachusetts Hall to turn parents into activists.

Yet the majority of the organizing is being done by students, many of whom were active in Union Summer (an AFL-CIO organizing project for college students) and the antisweatshop movement. Although the antisweatshop movement is still strong, according to Kern, many students thought that there wasn’t much more they could do at the local level. “It got to the point where people were arguing over international monitoring bodies and it was becoming a very distant fight.” One of the crucial lessons of the antisweatshop movement was the connection between what happened at the personal level and in the greater college community and its effect on workers around the world. In large part because of student pressure, seventy-eight colleges have joined the Worker Rights Consortium, the strictest of the independent groups that monitor workers’ conditions in textile factories. Students at more than twenty-five colleges participated in a dining hall boycott of Sodexho Marriot—a food service company that also invests heavily in private prisons, which often serve as some of the lowest wage domestic sweatshops. Living wage campaigns take some of the best lessons from the antisweatshop movement—including the need to work with unions and community groups—and apply it at the most local level.


The living wage campaigns have not only brought union and community groups onto campus, but have infused local labor and activist groups with new energy. At Harvard and Johns Hopkins, strong Service Employees International and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employee unions already existed. At Brown, where only some of the workers are organized, union organizing has been part of the student campaign. At Swarthmore, where there is no union, students are often doing the work union organizers would do, and networking with them for help and advice. The unions learn, too, often hiring student organizers to help with future campaigns.

Students are also taking lessons from the large-scale demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Economic Forum, Free Trade Area of the Americas, and G8. They are creating broad-based coalitions with staff, faculty, unions, and almost anyone else who will support the cause (“Micro-Physicists for A Living Wage” read one sign at Harvard), and they are using all the technology and media connections at their disposal. At Harvard, one of the facilitators of the large-scale protests in Seattle and Los Angeles during the Democratic National Convention was flown east to help with last-minute negotiations. According to Kern, “these campaigns have got to be public if they are going to survive. They have to stay out of task forces and committees and stay on the streets.” That’s one thing the global justice movement has helped remind students: if you don’t reach out to the community and make sure to involve workers and keep them engaged, it will fall apart.

Workerless Wage Campaigns?

Yet engaging workers is one of the areas where some campaigns have run into difficulty, in part because a living wage—on its own—doesn’t address the issues of respect or decision-making that the Swarthmore staff cited as being as important to them as wage increases. Also unaddressed by most campaigns are non-wage issues such as advancement, child care, medical and disability benefits, and quality of work. Unless they expand to take on these issues, living wage campaigns run the risk of becoming short-lived policy campaigns, without any guarantee that their victories can be sustained.

Living wage campaigns can make a huge material difference to the workers they affect, often raising wages by a few dollars per hour. However, they affect a relatively small number of workers for the energy that’s put into them (two hundred workers, at most, at Swarthmore; sometimes fifteen hundred in big city campaigns). And so they are as much about establishing a model as they are about the campaign itself, which is why linking wages to worker respect and self-determination is so important. To their credit, many of the students are well aware of this and speak of organizing with the workers instead of for them. At Brown, one successful strategy was a campaign called “I Work At Brown,” in which students conducted interviews with staff about what their lives and jobs were like and their struggle to survive and then blasted them from boom boxes around campus, sometimes with accompanying hip-hop beats.


Probably worst thing that could happen to the living wage campaigns is that they fight solely for a wage increase—which could be reversed at any time—and nothing more, so that even a victory would leave decision making in the hands of the administration. Jess Walsh, in an article in New Labor Forum, raises the specter of workerless living wage campaigns on campuses:

If campus living wage campaigns are to have material effects for workers in the form of wages and benefits and an ongoing voice on the job, then coalitions must foster worker participation and create worker representation vehicles within universities….The challenge is to adapt new institutional arrangements for worker representation that can work without union organizing and collective bargaining, but that do not work to the detriment of organizing, and can in fact promote and support unionization…. Living wage campaigns, at their best, are part of a movement for worker democracy and decision making.

Thinking about Swarthmore, Kae Kalwick echoes Walsh: “The ideal, for me, would be . . .that workers run their workplace and make the decisions that relate to their workplace.”

Living wage campaigns have already won a huge public relations battle just with their name—it’s clearly a movement for something and for something concrete, and it’s hard to say you are against a livable wage. It’s a lesson that the larger anticorporate globalization movement is struggling to learn. Globalophobicos (the Spanish word for the protesters) has the wrong ring to it—people afraid of the world. The difficulty in creating change at the large financial institutions and the greater police violence at recent demonstrations have encouraged some activists to return to local campaigns. Yet clearly the movement needs both—the detailed, very local work and the reminder that the different movements are interconnected and have common goals. “Whether here at home or in sweatshops abroad, working people are disempowered and that’s what we’re fighting against,” Blair says. “We can’t act with integrity without doing the work at the local level that we are trying to do at the international one.”


Rachel Neumann
is an assistant editor of Dissent