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
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
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
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
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
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.