How do you first get involved in
the living wage campaign at Brown?
When I first got to Brown in my freshman fall, which was the fall
of 1998, I joined the International Socialist Organization. To be
honest, I joined more out of interest or curiosity than anything
else. I have an older brother who went to college and sort of exposed
me to leftist ways of thinking, Marxism, and that sort of stuff,
but I really didn’t have a grip on it. But I didn’t
last too long in that group, mainly because they were very cynical—yeah,
can you believe it?—and essentially everything is an act of
hypocrisy after a while, at least that’s how I got to feel.
Whenever I did anything fun, whenever I spent any money on anything
that was not an essential means for survival, I felt bad.
After that, in the fall of my sophomore year, I joined the Student
Labor Alliance, which I’ve been a member of since. The Student
Labor Alliance, when I first joined, was heavily involved in the
sweatshop issue, mainly foreign sweatshops. The summer after my
sophomore year and during that sophomore year, I did a lot of stuff
on sweatshops. I actually got a grant to live in New York City and
research sweatshops in New York, textile factories in New York.
It was fascinating, because you realize how really these shops aren’t
a secret and their not trying to hide themselves from the public
eye. I mean, they are to some degree, but the fact is that no one
wants to go visit them-- no one’s interested, so they do whatever
the want for the most part and nobody really knows. Sure, the Department
of Labor comes knocking every once in a while, but the Department
of Labor is stretched so thin that they can only do these cursory
The Living Wage became the big issue for us, the Student Labor
Alliance, because sweatshops sort of fell from the scene: Brown,
for example, was the first school to sign on to the Worker’s
Rights Consortium. The problem with that is that we have become,
I think as a result, sort of apathetic about keeping tabs with what’s
going on with the sweatshop issues. In part, because we focused
so much on the local activist scene: stuff like the Living Wage
and graduate students trying to unionize here at Brown, which is
sort of a landmark case.
What were the highlights of the
I remember what we were really psyched to do was to try to get
out to workers a survey that I actually wrote up. It was just some
basic questions that we wanted to ask Brown employees, such as “What
are you paid?”, “Have you been offered a raise?”,
those sort of bread and butter questions, but also, “What
is your relationship with your employer? With your boss?”
and those sorts of questions. So we tried to go out en masse and
ask as many employees as we could, and I think we got quite a few
surveys back. Ican’t really give you a concrete number, but
I would think it was somewhere between 50 and 100.
A lot of their responses were really compelling. They had things
to say that were surprising. I remember having some pretty amazing
discussions with people about stuff they had heard of—a lot
of it was second-hand, sort of “Oh, well my cousin had this
happen to him: he wasn’t getting benefits, and then was fired
right before he would have qualified for a full-time spot, and then
rehired.” There was that kind of stuff, which is the standard
story, but is nonetheless shocking that is that thought out on the
part of the administration.
The next step of it, beyond asking these questions, was of course
to try to get these employees to take part together with us, a student
group, in some sort of organized protest against this. So we tried
to hold a few dinners. For example, we just got pizza and sort of
hung out and wanted to talk with as many employees as would come
by. And the results of that were very disappointing. I think our
gross turnout at one was two people, another time a maximum of three
people would come.
We tried to hold on to those people that came, but what I remember
happening was the gradual realization that, boy, employees at this
school don’t want to make a stir. In part it was because so
many of them have waited so long to get jobs here, that this is
really considered the acme, in terms of jobs, in Providence. It
is the best job you can get, the best job security and the best
benefits. The problem, of course, is that it’s the best benefits
for those that actually get the benefits. What we were trying to
deal with was the issue of temporary labor, specifically in the
cafeteria and food services, and to some degree in facilities management,
janitorial staff, and that sort of thing.
The campaign definitely sort of petered out before we really sat
down with the administration and hashed a lot of this stuff out.
That was my impression. Once again, I was gone last spring, and
when I left it was that critical moment where we were going to move
from having done this sort of question-and-answer thing, and trying
to attract people to these dinners, to trying to really organize
employees. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience,
or heard people echo this at other schools, but one thing we had
a lot of trouble with was not only organizing around particular
issues with other student groups, but trying to bridge this huge,
giant gap between the students and employees, or students and faculty,
to really create a coalition effort to say, for example, "we
need need-blind admissions at Brown." Everyone agrees we need
it. Why don’t we all just do something together? Or staff
wages at Brown.
I don’t know if you heard about this, but Ruth Simmons, who
is Brown's president, issued announcements a couple weeks ago about
these dramatic changes she wanted to make at Brown: hiring a hundred
new staff, for example, and improving graduate student stipends.
One of these things was raising the minimum wage of staff by a dollar—which
still leaves us definitely far behind the better paying schools,
but it was a step in the right direction. It did strike me as a
little odd, because it was raised something like from $9.00 to $10.00.
I was sitting there saying “Huh?”, because I know plenty
of people I talked to last fall who were making well under $9.00
an hour. It definitely seemed to skirt around the issue of temporary
What advice to you have for other
students working on Living Wage campaigns?
Well, I would say you have to look to Harvard and at what they
did. I think they’re the model at this point. I haven’t
yet seen this documentary they made ["Occupation"],
unfortunately. It is crazy we don’t have it because we definitely
want to show it this semester.
I guess the thing I would have to say about Harvard is that they
sat-in for three weeks—three weeks, which is intense. What
I don’t know, and what I’m really curious about, is
what kind of relations they did have with Harvard employees. I know,
for example, at Yale the activist students are incredibly involved
with the unions on campus, and sometimes that has caused conflict
within the student activist movement. Some people agree with the
union, and some people don’t and that causes conflict. But
I know here at Brown, we definitely don’t keep in touch with
unions as much as we’d like to.