Campus Living Wage Project


Harvard University
Elaine Bernard
Dan Dimaggio
Madeleine Elfenbein
Lawrence Katz
Roona Ray & Amy Offner

Brown University
Peter Asen
Matthew Jerzyk (Jobs for Justice)
Nick Rutter
Anissa Weinraub

Swarthmore College
Sam Blair
Kae Kalwaic

Economic Policy Institute
Jared Bernstein

Jen Kern

Stanford University
Anna Mumford [to come]

Colorado College
Kai Stinchombe [to come]

Interested in being interviewed?

Page: Interview

Jen Kern
Director, Living Wage Resource Center, ACORN

Interview Questions:
Are unions necessary for a successful student living wage campaign?
How can students help support the campus staff unions?
What is the role of economic research in promoting the living wage?
What is the effect of living wage campaigns on the students involved in them?
Do you have any other advice for students?


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 on campus.

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 themselves.

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.

Living Wage Links: ACORN / Harvard PSLM / Economic Policy Institute / Jobs for Justice / United Students Against Sweatshops / LabourStart / PERI / United for a Fair Economy

Last Updated 12.18.04
Research and design by Adam Stone
Feedback welcome
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This research project was generously funded by the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University, and supported through the efforts of Kent Koth, Renato Rosaldo, my family, and many friends and kind strangers.