Campus Living Wage Project

Interviews

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

ACORN
Jen Kern

Stanford University
Anna Mumford [to come]

Colorado College
Kai Stinchombe [to come]

Interested in being interviewed?

Page: Interview

Matthew Jerzyk
Director of Rhode Island's Jobs for Justice

Interview Questions:
How has your activism changed since being a student activist at Brown?
What is a successful city living wage campaign to you?
How have students contributed to the city campaign?
How do you approach economic theory and data in your campaign?
How do you compete with anti-Living Wage groups funded by industry groups?
What advice do you have to students working on living wage campaigns?

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You graduated in 1999 from Brown University, where you were active in various activist organizations. Working in Providence now as a community organizer, how has your activism changed since college?

I never learned the true principles of organizing until I left college. What I mean by that is that I was still stuck in this community service model of justice. Even at a school like Brown, students aren’t taught what power is. They’re taught what power is in such an ambiguous, amorphous, really complicated way. I spent two years working on a project on how ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the south of Sudan is nothing more than an exercise of continuing imperialism. I did a documentary on relief workers and how turn-over rates among of relief workers and the psychological dilemmas of among those with good intentions are just part of the larger U.S. foreign policy machine.

It wasn’t until after I returned to Providence, when I started working with certain community groups, that I learned that organizing starts at home. The world is a grid of power relations, and you can attack, and you can restructure, and you can really address that grid of power relations wherever you are in the world. Wherever you are in the world you can deal with it: it’s a matter of staring into the grid and finding out which is the best entry point in order to change or restructure the grid the way you want it changed.

For me, at that time, I realized it wasn’t about going to Sudan or wasn’t about doing any of that stuff: it is was about how, in Providence, we could change that grid of power relations. I was hired by Jobs for Justice as the full-time director and worked on the Living Wage campaign, and two years later we are still working on the campaign.

I would say the primary difference between my student activism and my current activism is that as a student at Brown University for four years, I wasn’t taught what organizing was. Not in the classroom, and not outside the classroom. I did some organizing, but I didn’t know what it was called. There were teach-in’s on some things, but it was more of an exercise in education and not in action.

When I was a student, and certainly after I was a student, I had so much ideological “blah-blah”. I was taught to be the liberal and critically think and critically examine all of this stuff, but I would still get nervous if I walked into a union hall with mostly Latina women. Race issues, gender issues, class issues-- all these things. Now I’ve reached a point where I don’t think twice: half my day is spent with workers.

I think students, more than anything, to be a successful activists, need to learn to take risks and make yourself look ridiculous. That means dealing with a certain level of fear, and understanding that you’re not in control of the situation. When we work with the Brown students, we’ve been really trying to encourage them to go to union meetings and to figure out easy ways to talk with workers. It’s an easy thing to do, but there’s a level of anxiety there that only experience can overcome.

People often think of Living Wage campaigns as focused solely on increasing worker wages and benefits. But many activists picture the Living Wage campaigns as part of a much larger struggle. What’s a successful Living Wage campaign to you?

Our Living Wage campaign means nothing if two things don’t happen: number one, we do a successful job of figuring out ways to change the debate about economic development in our city and our state. For us, this means going into community centers, going into church parish basement halls, doing bilingual workshops over and over again about what bottom-up economic development is and what it means. This means going through the basics, looking at how cities are structured, where the revenue comes in and how the revenue’s distributed, and very basically going through this stuff and saying “we can think about this different ways.” If we’re not able to change minds, and change the way the debate is shaped around economics, we will have failed the Living Wage campaign even if it passes.

Second, the campaign is useless and nothing more than a shadow of my ego or someone else’s glory if we don’t shift the power grid like I was saying earlier. We have two workers in our campaign who are now running for political office, and, of two more people who have been active in the campaign, one’s running for Senate and one’s running for City Council. I can give you concrete examples of how we’re changing the way leadership happens in the state by putting a bus monitor on the radio or putting a teacher’s assistant on the nightly news. Now they are the new Latino leader, when previously the Latino leader was the corporate person from Fleet Bank, Rhode Island.

We’re trying to create and change who the leaders are. But in the process, the way the power grid changes is when we bring 200 workers to city hall and they realize that city hall is messed up. Then they realize what’s the next step: “Okay, you run for office.” Elections don’t always change the power grip, but people understanding how city politics work and taking shape of the issue for themselves will.

So those are the two things. If we’re not able to change the debate on economic development in the state, and if we haven’t built power for low-wage workers, changing the way low-wage workers relate to their union, the way they relate to their communities, and the way they relate to their supposed leaders, then we will have failed. But I think, on both of those, we’ve done a pretty good job overall.

The Brown activists I’ve interviewed have mixed feelings about the campus campaign. At the same time, support and enthusiasm for the city campaign has grown. How have the students contributed to the city campaign?

Brown activists have done a number of things for the city campaign: first and foremost, they always bring students to events, which is always nice.

There’s a couple stories: number one, they produced a comic for our the kick-off for our living wage campaign. The comic was put in the hands of the electrical workers union. The comic basically implied that the trade unions were racist, and so that comic basically got one of our closest allies in the trades drop out of Jobs for Justice and drop out of the Living Wage Campaign. So that was a harmful effect the SLA had on our campaign.

One our most important votes on the City Council is the area of town that Brown University sits in and a lot of the students live in. So we’ve asked them over the last year to really dedicate themselves to building a strong committee and building up strong relationships (good ally organizing) with businesses, with churches, with community groups, and with residents that live around Brown. They’ve been disappointing in a lot of ways in making promises, and when not being able to fulfill those promises, not saying “we can’t do it.” We invested a lot of our coalition time in trying to build relationships with students that would do that.

However, it’s coming around again: in the last couple of months they’ve been doing a lot more work. I think they’ve done a good job in working on winning their particular vote. It’s a simple question where we approach them and say, “We need you to win one vote for us, and it’s where you live. You can do it. Here’s a list of three hundred people in that ward you can talk to.”

Academic economic theory and research has a very mixed record with activists I’ve talked to. How do you approach economic arguments in the Living Wage activism you do?

When I was a student at Brown, I tried taking so many economics classes, and I ended up taking zero. I actually went through weeks and weeks of these classes, and then just stopped. Part of it is that you’re learning a poisonous language, and I was worried about it poisoning me because the system is structurally messed up. But I also think I haven’t done a good enough job of examining (and I think I have now, because of this Living Wage campaig) how one develops different economic development models. Now I can sit in a room with the city’s finance director, the mayor, the director of administration, and the head of the economic policy council and can run them into the ground. The language they speak is now the language I know and can deal with.

How do you deal with anti-Living Wage groups, such as the Employment Policies Institute? Groups such as these get funding from vested interests, such as the restaurant industry. How do you compete?

It’s not about whether our propaganda’s better than the other side’s—we have to show that it works. If it doesn’t work, we need to think of something else, and if it doesn’t work because we aren’t enforcing it, that’s not good enough. If we think Living Wage ordinances are really going to solve the problems of low-wage work, temp work, privatization, the lack of a middle-class in our cities, we have to show that it is doing that. I think ultimately, in terms of who’s on what side in this nation, we have to be able to give concrete examples of stories. We’re not going to win the fake numbers war. We’re going to win it because we’re actually winning it. We think that we have more truth than they do. We’re trying to win a progressive proposal in a moderate (if that) city government.

Obviously, my identity is shaped by the work I do as an organizer. If three years down the line we pass this thing and it’s not working, I’d be the first one to say let’s do something different. If we don’t, then what’s the point? If we’re not being honest with ourselves, it’s going to catch up with us. I do think it’s a partisan battlefield and people are wearing flags and making state flowers out of their campaigns, but I think it’s going to catch up with you at some point if you’re not falling on the right side of the issue.

Maybe that’s why I don’t like politics, or political elections, or working on campaigns: it is about the win. I don’t think it’s about winning. One of the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. was that, above anything else, he was a great organization builder. He was a tremendous organization builder. He built breadth and width in the organization, from SCLC to SNCC. I think he was almost there, but it shows you his inability to really do that, because when he died, they died.

The point is that Living Wage campaigns are about a different type of infrastructure building that activists and community organizers forgot over the last thirty years. They’ve forgotten how to do it. And Living Wage campaigns are an attempt to rebuild that infrastructure that’s been lost.

What advice to you have for the students working on Living Wage campaigns?

I think students have the ability to be amazing organizers in four ways.

The first way is, since they are at centers of knowledge production, to utilize their location. For instance: we have to produce newspapers, fliers, research reports, and analyses—all different kinds of “sit at a computer for a couple of hours and hammer out a fact sheet.” Students can do this. They have access to high-speed computers, they have access to the internet, to big libraries—they can do this type of research for campaigns such as ours.

The second thing is, since again the universities are the center of knowledge production, students have the capcity to hold public forums, workshops, teach-ins, and anything else they can do to expose the issue and try to find the truth about the issue. We keep pushing the Brown Student-Labor Alliance to do public forums, to bring in some academics, some activists, the Chamber of Commerce representatives, and host a debate. We keep pushing them to use the university as a tool to get at the heart of the issue.

The third thing that student activists and student activism could contribute to a living wage campaign is the ability to energize and bring a vitality. The workers in our campaign are mostly bus monitors, teacher’s assistants, and bus drivers. And these are mostly 33-50 year old Dominican, Bolivian, Haitian, and Liberian low-wage immigrant workers. They’re working two jobs, and when we have a meeting and stuff, students have the ability to make puppets, drums, and a real youthfulness to meetings. I think that is really, really powerful. The success of a campaign can turn on the energy in a room where you have a meeting.

The fourth thing is utilizing, again, the location of where students are, which means utilizing the power of their university and organizing inside their university. A large part of what, in the past year, I’ve tried to encourage among the campuses we work with (which is Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island) is building multi-issue or multi-racial coalitions on campus. How do you as a student-labor alliance (you’re all white kids) talk to other student groups who are on campus around this issue? Because, you know what, when you graduate you’re going to be like me and you’re going to have to be doing the same thing. You might as well start now.

Utilize the power of the corporations. The university is a corporation in the sense that it tries to influence sweat-shop policies and living wage policies on campus. What happened at Harvard is a key way to utilize the power of your university to influence other campaigns. In fact, the effect of the Harvard Living Wage campaign was to make the living wage issue on everyone’s mind in Providence—that helps us. That helps us tremendously.

Understand that a lot of students have fathers and mothers who are corporate executives. I think it is just a simple matter of talking to them, saying, “I want to talk to you tonight. I’m learning about this, the living wage campaign means this, this, and this, and this is why it’s important.” Put a lot of time into it and understand that there’s a lot of political and economic power of parents at Brown University.

The difference between an advocate and an organizer is that an advocate wants to win, and an organizer wants to build. It’s not about winning a Living Wage ordinance, it’s about building a coalition, and it’s about building one that has power. What we’ve done is create a coalition of over 200 small businesses, community groups, ministers, and many other groups. We had to do the painful, painful work of organizing one person by one person.

It is less about wages and it’s more about putting a coalition in place so that three years from now we can raise the Living Wage even higher. If we win this in Providencem we will take it to the state level. And what do we need to do at the state level? We have to build coalitions.

For me, it’s a glorious victory when we can have our coalition meetings and everyone shows up and there’s a sense of camaraderie, togetherness, solidarity, and all this other stuff. For me, that’s the primary goal of the Jobs for Justice coalition: to rebuild the movement. That’s the painful work of organizing.

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
astone(at)stanford.edu
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.