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

Peter Asen
Student Activist, Brown University

Interview Questions:
How did the Student-Labor Alliance decide to campaign for a living wage?
What were the highlights of the campaign?
What was the outcome of the committee formed to look into employment at Brown?
What were the advantages and disadvantages of having students represent staff?
How did the city and campus campaign differ?
What could other campaigns learn from Brown?
Where do you think the real power of students comes from?

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How did the Student Labor Alliance at Brown decide to focus on the Living Wage?

It was partly based on the fact that it was in conjunction with the Living Wage campaign that was going on in the city of Providence. I think, if I’m not mistaken, that the original writing of the Living Wage ordinance in Providence would not have exempted Brown, but then it was adapted so that a non-profit, because Brown is a non-profit or for some reason they were exempt. So we decided that if this ordinance passes, it doesn’t make sense to us that Brown should be exempt from it, so let’s work on something at Brown. That was sort of the impetus for doing it, and also knowing that a lot of groups who had been doing anti-sweatshop stuff before had moved on to Living Wage. The group didn’t have a real, good permanent sort of direction in the group after the sweatshop stuff had finished successfully so this was a good new direction to go in.

What were the highlights of the living wage campaign on campus at Brown?

To me, one highlight was when we had a sort of rally/protest in coalition with three other causes going on at the same time during "corporation weekend" in February last year. We formed a group called the "Corporation Weekend Coalition," a sort of short term coalition with a group that was fighting for better recognition of and more funding for ethnic studies, a group that was working for higher student wages, and a group that was working for a better orientation programs for minority students.

So we had probably a 80 to 100 person rally on the day the “corporation” was meeting, which is like the board of trustees, and handed out information to the board, asking them to consider these issues. It was a really, really good action, got a lot of attention, and seemed a really good example of working with other groups. That, to me, was one of the more positive things that happened.

You told me on the phone that it was “death by committee.” What was the outcome of the committee formed to investigate employment issues on campus?

It is positive at least in the fact that there is some recognition by the administration that it is an issue that they want to look at. But we asked for worker involvement in the committee, which they said was against collective bargaining agreements but we sort of thought was a bullshit excuse. We asked for faculty involvement in the committee and they wouldn’t grant that either. So the committee ended up being nine members, three students and six administrators, so the committee membership we felt was stacked against us from the beginning. It didn’t represent all the interests in the community.

We really felt faculty should be represented, and because faculty were not represented, we started a petition with faculty to say they supported our campaign. We got about fifty faculty to sign something saying they supported our campaign. We went to faculty to say part of why we’re doing this is because we want faculty to have a voice in this process, and we are concerned that they are keeping faculty out of this committee.

The committee also was sort of run by the chief financial officer of the university, who is very anti-Living Wage, despite the fact that he was a former Teamster. He was very negative from the very start: a lot of people were saying “We can’t afford this,” but he was saying “Even if we could afford this, I don’t wouldn’t want to pay a living wage. I don’t see the point of it.” he was very negative, and he drove the committee and wanted to get through it very quickly. then he kept stalling in the meetings, kept getting put off, and there weren’t enough meetings.

In the end, there was a report that the committee put out, and one positive thing about the process is that they allowed the students to put their own section in the report. In the end, it was basically split down the line between students and administrators: all the students on one side and all the students on the other. It was a chance to have a dissenting report, and that did get into the committee report. But in the end, the committee didn’t make recommendations like what we were hoping for. Some minor positive things came out of it, such as the elimination of some of temporary jobs and the conversion of some temporary jobs to permanent jobs.

I think it was partly pressure and partly just the university realizing that some of their hiring policies concerning temporary workers was a little bit of a black eye for the university. For example, they had a 1,000 hour policy: if a worker worked 1,000 hours (which is basically six months, full-time), then they would either have to fire them or offer them a permanent job. So what they were doing was firing people and then hiring them one day laterm or just firing people and hiring a new temporary worker. A lot of people who came to Brown thinking, “I’ll start with a temporary job and then I’ll get a chance to get a permanent job,” because they new about this policy, ended up coming and then getting canned after six months.

So we were really concerned about that, and also concerned about the general unequal treatment of temporary workers, such as the fact that there was not equal pay for equal work, that temporary workers weren’t getting health benefits, and weren't even able to use the library, athletic facilities, or other school facilities that permanent workers could use.

There were little changes in those areas. This February, Ruth Simmons announced that the minimum wage I didn’t even know there was one) for all university employees was going to raise from $9.00 to $10.00 an hour. The language of it, to me, was unclear. They made it sound like it included everyone, but I’m not clear exactly what that means. I’m sure it does not includ people hired by temporary agencies, but there aren’t that many of those anymore. It was something that I think did come out of our group drawing attention to what was going on in the university.

What are the challenges and successes you’ve had of having students representing staff?

To me, that’s probably the most problematic aspect of having a Living Wage campaign, and it is part of the reason why we put the campaign on hiatus this year. It made some people very concerned about the campaign and upset about it. We tried to avoid this sort of paternalistic outlook and tried to avoid the “we are doing this for you” kind of thing. One thing that we did do was try to have meetings with workers and talk to them, and go to coffee breaks, and try to get them after work to come meet with students and talk about it. But that was very difficult because a lot of people didn’t have time after work, or had to go home, and it was hard to get the work out in certain scenarios—especially with non-unionized people who were worried about losing their jobs or felt very vulnerable here. It was extremely difficult to do that. The problem is, how do you build a movement that is really everyone’s movement, the worker’s movement as much as ours? We didn’t effectively do that in the end, I think, and that was a major reason it was a problem.

As a contrast, for example, we had some workers from store’s operations contact us, which is a group that delivers mail and other stuff around the university. There’s only six of them, but they wanted to join the facilities management union. The three workers who were really pushing for unionization were being harassed by their employer. For instance, they were having a union meeting at their house and their supervisor drove by and was spying on them, and they were getting written up for being three minutes late as just sort of an intimidation tactic.

They talked to us, their union representative talked to us, and they said “We want to work on this, and we want you guys to get some recognition of what the university’s doing and try to stop this.” That’s a case where they really came to us and we worked with them, and it was a cooperative effort. It was their movement and it was our movement, and it was a successful thing in that it got this to stop and now they’re going to be able to join the union. It was a very small thing that affected six workers, but it was successful in the sense it was cooperative, it wasn’t paternalistic, and it wasn’t “we decided we want to do this for you.” So the question is, how do we do that? The other question is, do we just want to wait for the workers to say “We want this” and jump on it, or do we want to jump start these discussions? I think all that is very difficult.

How has the role of students in the city campaign differed from in the campus campaign?

In the city campaign, we are one small element working in this broad coalition. We have been doing a lot of work on the East Side, specifically, such as meeting with a city counselor, and now we’re trying to set up another meeting for neighborhood residents with her-- but we’re just one small part of it. And that’s fine. There's a lot of people working on it, and it’s been great to sort of work with these other organizations and such.

But the student campaign, we sort of were it. So it’s different, and there’s less control. Sometimes that alienates some people because they feel like it is not theirs, but I think it’s an important to be able to learn to work with other people.

There’s a bunch of workers involved in the campaign, especially people who are going to be affected by it who have taken on roles. For example, school bus drivers, school bus monitors, and teacher’s assistants, who are all very poorly paid, always come to rallies and speak on behalf of it. It’s not just their campaign, but it really is in some part theirs.

What do you want other campaigns to learn from your experience with the Brown campaign?

I think an important thing is to make sure that workers are involved—that you find out what the concerns of employees really are.

One thing we did do that was positive in that regard was interviews with a bunch of workers. We didn’t end up doing do that many but we probably did 50 or so. We talked to a bunch of workers about what their concerns were, and I think that’s really important. Living Wage campaigns and policies are somewhat of a broad, cookie-cutter model, and you can’t just stick it into whatever’s going on in your campus and assume this is the problem. In some campus contracting out is going be a major issue, or temporary vs. permanent is going to be a major issue, and in others maybe everybody is permanent and unionized but still only makes eight bucks an hour-- working with the union if there’s a union, or working with workers in other ways. But a union is sort of an easy way to try to make that communication happen and that cooperation. I think that is a really essential thing.

What do you think is the real power of students in these campaigns, at the college level in particular? What can students really offer?

Students have time. Students aren’t, by and large, raising families, don’t have to work more than 10 hours a week, but they do have a lot of resources and have these easy ways to organize each other, meet, get together, and try to build student power. The students are a voice that the university has to listen to and wants to listen to, or at least has rhetoric saying it wants to listen to.

Another piece of advice I’d give it that you have to make the campaign broader than we did. It was very much sort of centered in this one group, and at Brown there were a lot of other groups that would have been sympathetic and interested. Even though we worked in coalition with them, it was really always our 10 or 15-person group’s campaign. It can’t work that way- you have to have a lot of people on the campus talking about it, caring about it, being involved.

One really positive thing Harvard did was they were really trying to do was send out these emails that say “If you ten minutes do this, fifteen minutes do this, an hour do this, and if you have two hours, do this. These are all the ways you can help.” Trying to make it really user-friendly and really get people involved, and I think that issomething that is important in order for student power to be developed. It can’t be developed from 10 students- it can start there, but it can’t end there and be successful.

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

Last Updated 1.31.05
Research and design by Adam Stone
astone(at)stanford.edu
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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.