At Swarthmore College, the students
were having trouble organizing a successful living wage campaign
without an on-campus union. Are unions necessary for a successful
student Living Wage campaign?
More generally, how do I envision the relationship between the
living wage and unions? I think that ACORN's position is clear:
no ordinance or administrative policy of a college campus will ever
replace having an organized union. A union is the best way to bargain
for better working conditions and protect those working conditions.
Without that, there is no guarantee: the administration can change
their policy next year. We believe that to the extent that the living
wage campaigns in cities and on campuses can be directly connected
to organizing, that makes them more successful. That’s what
we’re going for.
We’re an organizing-focused organization. We don’t
just think poor people should get programs, we think they should
join ACORN and get a collective voice to contest for power for their
own community—and the same on campuses. I’m actually
quite encouraged by the trend on campuses of connecting their living
wage fights to either starting a union where it doesn’t exist,
or something independent. Like in Knoxville, TN, campus workers
started an independent union through their involvement in the living
wage campaign. Originally, they were not affiliated with any AFL-CIO
union, but they began to function as a union. The students and citywide
living wage campaign supported them, but the workers actually organized
into their own union on campus.
One reason that students are an effective conduit in the absence
of campus unions is because workers are afraid of getting fired.
They are afraid of speaking out because they could be punished on
the job or lose their jobs completely. Students may speak out on
behalf of workers without the same fear of retaliation. Students
can help protect workers from the constant fear of retaliation by
fighting for a union. Workers with strong union representation and
a good contract that says they can’t be fired for speaking
out can speak for themselves, and are no longer dependent on transient
students for their voice.
A good way for students to think about their role is that, “I’m
not going to be here forever. I’m graduating in four years,
and I’m not the be-all, end-all savior of the workers. I’m
here to help build a permanent organization that workers can use
to improve and protect their working conditions in the future.”
How can students help to support
the worker unions on-campus?
In some cases, the students are helping build new unions. But once
you have a union, you have to have a contract-- and a contract isn’t
automatically golden. The contract is only as good as what you organize
for and what you negotiate for. The strength of a student body supporting
higher wages is to help unions to win better contracts.
Look at Harvard: half of those workers were organized workers already.
When their contracts were up, that’s when the Harvard Living
Wage Campaign thought, "Okay, this is something we can do.
We can help build support for a better contract, one which more
equitably reflects what the endowment allows.’ Student living
wage campaigns can both support new organizing drivesback the workers
to win better contracts.
The student role will differ across campuses: in some places there
aren’t workers involved in these campaigns-- let’s be
totally honest. There are some campaigns where it’s just students
saying “We want a living wage for the people who clean up
after us.” There’s no union interested in organizing,
and there’s no talk of organizing, and the workers aren’t
coming to meetings. That’s not ideal, but in some places,
the campaigns begin because students know that it’s the right
thing to do. The lasting effects of this model are unknown-- what
if everyone graduates and there’s still no union?-- though
it does help draw attention to the critical issue of poverty work
The students who are thinking in a sophisticated way about this
are thinking “We need to find a long-term, worker-based solution
to low-wages and a lack of power on the jobs,” and that’s
why they’re thinking unions. It can’t happen everywhere.
I’m not suggesting that living wage campaigns are useless
unless they result in wall to wall unionization. But I think it
means that you must build a student labor action or living wage
group that comes back year after year and provides some continuity
to the issue of worker support. You’re always going to have
some younger kids and they should be cultivated as leaders.
The students’ challenge is to make sure, to the extent that
they can, that they’re talking to workers, understanding their
demands, and taking those demands as students to the administration
and saying, “Our job is to watch over you, and as far as we
can tell these workers aren’t getting what they should get.”
That’s another model. If unionization is not a possibility
now, it might be in two years, when some local gets interested.
Students can still build support for improving the conditions of
people on campus in the meantime.
Most of the activists I’ve
talked seem skeptical about using or relying on research—especially
economic research—to win Living Wage campaigns. Why are they
skeptical? What are the limits of research in your view?
The limits are, in one sentence: You don’t win a living wage
campaign because you are “right." That’s not why
you win. You win because you brought enough pressure to bear on
the people who can make the decision, people who can change their
behavior and give you what you want. You win because you’ve
convinced your target that it will be more painful for them not
to do what you want them to do than it will be to do it.
Sometimes it helps to have a study that says, “hey, this
isn’t going to bust the bank” or whatever. But, chances
are, they know that already, but they just don’t want to give
it up. What makes them give it up isn’t the study that says
“give it up.”
Having said that, research can be useful. One, the press likes
to hear about studies and numbers and etc. Two, the administration
likes to sit down across tables and talk about numbers, especially
in these campuses. They get these students into "task forces",
and then they know they can hammer them because the administration
finance people know much more about the campuses finances then the
students do. Then it becomes just a game of catch-up for the students,
for the students to pick the right number and try to understand
the big picture.
I think the useful parts of research are the research reports that
help demonstrate that there is a problem, such as a survey to find
out how many workers make less than living wage. For instance, at
Brown University students went
and recorded testimony from workers, and then walked around and
played the tapes from a huge boom box. It was called “I Work
For Brown.” The low wage workers would start by saying, “I
work for Brown and ...” and then they would tell their story.
That’s campaign research. That's research that you do to move
your campaign forward. It’s not a study for the sake of having
better numbers than the administration.
I’m not trying to write off the important contributions of
folks like the Economic Policy Institute.
It’s useful to have numbers and white papers. The larger national
living wage movement (outside of colleges and universities) has
really benefited from having a handful of studies that report on
the economic impact of living wage laws that have already passed
and can debunk some of the opposition’s arguments. It’s
useful just because of course you get this argument, “Oh look,
contract costs are going to go through the roof, people are going
to lose their jobs, and it is nice to be able to say, “We
know they’re not, but here’s something that actually
shows that they didn’t.” But that in itself ain’t
going to win a campaign.
The other problem with getting sucked into the research trap is
that it allows you to be taken off message. It forces you to buy
into the fact that research may “prove” that a living
wage policy is unnecessary or impossible. We don’t want to
concede that – ever. We have seen the results of getting out
there and repeating our simple message a million times in a row:
if you work, you shouldn’t be poor. It actually works. I think
that when people sit back and say, “There’s another
side to the story,” it does the campaign a disservice.
I would argue that in an organizing campaign, there’s actually
not another side, though there may be nuances. No living wage victory
is perfect: we almost never get everything we initially demanded.
But we would never have gotten anything
unless we were hell-bent in our belief that the distribution of
wealth and power in our society is completely shameful. There is
too much power on the other side to allow that there is another
way to look at it.
There is no other side of the story. Stanford has enough money
to pay its people a living wage. Period. There’s sort of no
discussion after that. They’re pretending that they don’t
have other money, and that’s absolutely not true. To the extent
that students actually engage in looking through the books, it takes
them away from what they just know to be true: that somebody who
wakes up everyday, cleans up after them, gives them food, cuts the
grass, and makes sure that the campus machines are all working does
not deserve to go home with less money than they need to support
That’s the thing: I think the best attitude for organizers
is that there is no other side of the story. Of course, you should
have a couple of students who are the ones who are going to look
at some of the books and try to discern what the lies are and what
may be truth-- such as "maybe we need to phase this in because
the budget," etc. But the overall approach has to be "there
is no other side of the story."
How do the Living Wage campaigns
affect the students involved in them? Many students have described
their experience as more educational than their classes. Others
have called it “transformative." What do you see happening
to the students?
Living wage campaigns are making people want to do organizing,
making people want to work for a union, and explore what it’s
like to work for ACORN. Living wage campaigns are making people
want go out into neighborhoods, knock on doors, talk to the actual
people themselves to find out what they want to do, and then organize
them to do that. I think the best thing that you can do is continue
doing campus organizing that’s as in-your-face as you can,
so that one night you have to choose between making your turn-out
calls for the rally or do your paper, and you actually chose to
do the turn-out calls for the rally.
I think these living wage campaigns on campus should be incubators
for people who are committed to careers in organizing. Of course,
there are also people who are going to be lawyers, and maybe legal
services lawyers who could helpful in our campaigns. There are going
to be economics majors who turn into economists who do studies about
how living wages help workers, business, communities. And that’s
great; we need those people.
But we need many more people who are just going to throw down,
go talk to workers, sign workers up, get the union dues coming in
the door, get the community organization dues coming in the door,
and build our membership so that we can march on bigger and bigger
targets and have more and more influence. The most important project,
as a progressive, is to do real organizing of a mass-base constituency
of low-income people-- whether in their workplace through unions,
or in their neighborhoods through a community organization. That’s
where there’s not enough staff.
What advice to you have for the
students working on Living Wage campaigns?
This could be more than just what you’re doing in college—this
could be your life. The problems that you’re addressing now
have been around for years, they are going to be around for years,
and the employee pool for them is way too low. You need to get into
this, and we need to build staff for the movement. Make activism
your life. Don’t treat it as something you’re doing
before you go on to law school.
Students are actually gaining great skills, and they are smart.
I’m completely impressed by these student organizers. They
have a good set of instincts, but they can be honed if they do Union
Summer, or train at the AFL-CIO organizing institute, or they
come to work for ACORN. Wait
until you see what you can do. It’s the most rewarding job
you could have.