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

Kae Kalwaic
Assistant Administrator and Labor Organizer, Swarthmore College

Interview Questions:
How did the living wage become an important issue on campus?
What do students learn from working on the living wage campaign?
Do you have any other advice for students working on campaigns elsewhere?


You’ve worked for many years at Swarthmore. How did the Living Wage, in just the last few years, become an important issue on campus?

The issues have always been there; it is just a matter of staff being able to express themselves, to come forward and say what they are thinking and having a unity to do that. There are no models here for staff to come together on behalf of their own interests. There’s no union to go to. There is just nothing there.

I think the one huge issue that has confronted people, including myself, when they become involved in the campaign, is that the issues are so complicated. It is so complicated. It has many variations on a theme that keep confusing and muddling the waters constantly. I think that muddling of the waters drives some students away, but only a few, because there has been lots of student support. But that mudding of the water makes this issue sometimes unclear to people about what’s gong on. And when you have people of authority also mudding the waters, it is like you are not able to find yourself anywhere in the stream. You are just kind of washed along with the current and you don’t know where you are going. I think that is one of the difficulties of running a campaign is that it is just so complicated. Then you mix in human emotions and human foibles, and fear (mix in a good portion of fear), and-- wow.

In the beginning, it was very simple to get a living wage. When we first started a campaign, the bottom wage on the published salary schedule was the minimum-wage. That’s what we were starting with at the bottom rungs of the ladder. We looked at that and said, “How could anybody live on that wage?” So we did a lot of investigating to find out to whom we pay five dollars an hour, six dollars an hour, seven dollars an hour. What are we paying our workers? So that took a lot of investigation and we found out pretty much where people are on the scales. We did our research with the Women’s Alternative Group’s figures, as well as with what the Economic Policy Institute published. What we found was it took $9.19/hour for an individual to live just above the poverty line with no dependents-- and that’s just above the poverty line.

What do the students learn from the Living Wage Campaign?

That has always been my primary objective in all this: to open students' eyes to what is really happening at the place they go to school; to see hat is really there, not what you see on the surface, but what is really there. The other important thing is that I hope they learned that this is their issue too. It doesn’t just belong to staff, because someday the students are going to be out in the workplace too. I hope that they can draw on what they saw here and apply it to wherever they go. I hope that they have some skills to start with, and they can understand why certain things in their workplace are happening certain ways. They won’t be starting from scratch, they’ll already know about how the system works. It’s that quotation about one’s liberation being tied to mine.

This also brings up why we included "democracy" in our organization’s name ("Living Wage and Democracy Campaign"). What would be really revolutionary would be if the institution, Swarthmore College, were democratic, rather than in the CEO or top-down management model. That’s the one thing that the institution will get in trouble with in terms of what learn in theory, and what is actually practiced. What is practiced in business and in these institutions is basically a top-down hierarchical form. It doesn’t model democracy in any shape or form. It gives the appearance of democracy because there are some meetings. Don’t take it from me; just interview anybody whose been on meetings: they’ll say, “We met a lot, but I’m not sure what the outcome was.”

One of the things we did in our investigation was to find out how decisions were made. They’re basically made by the board and the president. He takes all these things into consideration, but basically it rests with his decision and the board. Basically, there is no democracy. To me, that would be the ideal: a democratic workplace, where people make decisions about their job, without the hierarchy of management.

Do you have any advice for the students working on Living Wage campaigns elsewhere?

I think the main lesson is that it is not fighting for the figures. It is fighting for greater fairness and equality in our wage structure, and truly valuing the contribution of every worker.

The other lesson I’ve learned is that the only way you’re going to get a living wage is not through any kind of concessions from the administration, but through the exertion of your own power or influence. Don’t expect it to be handed down as a gift. You have to get out there, you’ve got to agitate, you’ve got to put it on the table, and you’ve got to advocate for yourself. A lot of what we do in this campaign is educating, and that takes a long time. It is true democracy, because you are trying to educate people about what their rights are, about what you can do, and about what you can do when you go out there. I don’t know if there’s any venue in any of the educational institutions that says, “Okay, how are you going to go out and fight for your rights?”

The university only changes when people demand their rights, and do so in a way that puts it out there for public attention. When people come forward for their rights publicly, that’s when the institution realizes that something’s going on here, and that they better address it.

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
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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.