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

Sam Blair
Student Activist, Swarthmore College

Interview Questions:
What attracted you to the Living Wage proposal?
What were staff members were saying that drew you in?
What's the connection between respect and a living wage?
What is the relationship between market wages and fair wages?
What do you think is the major source of power for students?
What have you learned from the living wage campaign?


What attracted you to the Living Wage proposal?

I think, and I think other students would echo this, certainly the most compelling motivation for being involved and continuing to be involved was having those personal discussions with staff members, and hearing some of them say the things they were saying. At some level, it was the personal connection—it was very honest, very straight-forward—and feeling like this potentially could be some way to have some effect on something that was real in people’s lives.

As a somewhat budding activist at that point in time, I had thoroughly burned out my sophomore year on attempting to run around and go to the meetings of all the different groups and do this and that, go to protests or whatever, primarily on international issues, and having absolutely zero effect on anything whatsoever. So there was a definite sense that we were going local and taking on an initiative where we could at least know what we were asking for, that we could fight for, and knew (or thought we knew) how to get it. That was a definite incentive.

Certainly while the campaign has had trouble with continuity, we would have had a lot more trouble with continuity if we didn’t have some of those—maybe a small number—but some pretty close personal connections with staff members in different places.

What, in particular, drew you about what staff members were saying?

I think more than anything, it was people talking candidly about respect issues. Just in general, the sense that there are faculty here, and there are staff there--that divide. Having been here for a couple of years, I was very semi-conscious of them and knew there was class divisions. It was hearing them say what it’s like to not be given the respect of human decency, from faculty members who would trash their offices to students who treat dorm housing as a hotel (and that includes after a weekend of revelry).

So I think I was definitely drawn in by the way people talked about respect, and the lack thereof, and developing, within a small group, certain people who had a real dynamism about them and telling it like it is. One thing that happens at Swarthmore is that we get so intellectual and into the ways of saying things in intricate and complex manners. To have someone I know, and now a friend, talking about living from day to day, and trying to deal with stuff at home, hold down a job, and take home enough to take care of kids-- that was very strong.

Other people have emphasized “dignity” as a goal of the campaign. In your opinion, what’s the connection between showing respect and paying a living wage?

I think the way we came to think about it was as simple as this: you can not honestly pay someone their due respect and not pay a living way. A living wage is only part of it, but it is one of its manifestations. It is putting your money where your mouth is when you say "we respect everyone as a full member of this community." To pay less than basic needs seems like a complete contradiction to that and hypocritical.

What’s the relationship between market wages and fair wages?

I think generally the line I’ve heard from my economics professors is that the market has nothing to do with fair. The market is an efficient means of allocation, but efficient does not mean fair. In issues of fairness and justice, we can’t just look to what the market could bare. That doesn’t mean that our economists won’t argue against a living wage, though.

What we are asking is that the work of every person who puts in their time for this institution to be valued in a way that is different from society’s current pattern. We ask that we value someone who gives their life—in terms of forty hours every week—and gives it in a manner that is different than simply selling your body to a business or company. People take real pride here, and they take pride in their students, to some extent. I was just talking one of the custodial staff who works in my dorm, and she was talking about how she goes to graduation every year and cheers us on. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that we look at it as a different kind of contribution, and that, when you invest in a place, and give it what you can give it to make it a better place, you should be taking home enough to be able to come back the next day, rested, and knowing that you don’t need to worry about the kids and all that.

What is the reason that a living wage movement might work at Swarthmore? Do you think that the power of the campaign is its moral power?

I wonder, looking back, if we were so naive that we thought that was the case. Perhaps we did. Perhaps we thought that if we framed it in a strong enough moral high-ground light, they would be embarrassed into taking action. That certainly didn’t prove to be the case.

We certainly have had an administration that appeared to be all ears at times. The president in particular thanked us for our presentation to him a year ago, and talked about how he was so happy to see Swarthmore students caring about these issues, etc. But it goes in circles and nothing concrete every gets said that you could pin anyone down to.

I think definitely over the last year we have learned that moral arguments don’t take you anywhere on there own. Especially recognizing the realities of competing priorities, that there are pressures (financial pressures, for example) that are weighing in on these groups and individuals. If we can’t frame our own effort in terms that can compete with those, we have no game.

That’s hard here for a couple of reasons. One, because we’re such a tiny school, and I think what that does is that makes the language of community a lot more believable. I don’t if they talk about a university community at Stanford (maybe they do, maybe they don’t), but they talk about it up the wazoo here. I feel like shooting myself in the foot for how many times I must have written the word "community" in advocacy type letters last year that were essentially appealing to the moral sense of institution.

The way we see students having power is, perhaps primarily right now, through the potential for publicity about the college that the president would find unfavorable, and ultimately through alumni and the people who are the primary donors to the institution, and framing it in some kind of financial terms. It’s difficult, partly because the small size and community language.

We’ve been wary about taking on confrontational terms, and have also been very surprised last year, when stuff was really going on, by how we would be called out for doing things that we wouldn’t consider confrontational at all. Looking back, I feel like some people really had the pre-emptive strike going well, getting us to question our own tactics in a way that would stall what we were doing. We have yet to completely get our heads straight, but it’s an ongoing process, and it continues to escalate in our own thinking about it, if not yet in the actions that we take.

What would it take for the Living Wage proposal to succeed at Swarthmore?

Essentially, I think that it would take having the president decide that it is in the financial interests of the university to make it happen, which could mean a few different things. It could mean fearing a blow-up in bad publicity and cutting down alumni donations; it could mean having an alumni drive and alumni committing not to donate again unless the institution agreed to pay a living wage; it could mean alumni tagging their donations for a special fund. Short of a serious threat of unionization, I don’t think anything else would do it.

What have you learned from the Living Wage campaign? What sort of suggestions to you have for other students?

We, being students, really can’t do work on staff issues alone. We’ve had a lot of debates about this, and lost a lot of energy around issues of legitimacy as a student organization and things like that. But I still think that we can’t do it alone, and part of the reason is that we face such opposition. We’ve been taking fire from all sides on that front. So it needs to be about finding an issue, a struggle, that you frame in a common way that will bring people together and bring different workers to the table, bring more workers to the table.

We’ve gone back and forth about why there hasn’t been more staff participation. Iit seems very clear to us that it’s because there’s fear of retaliation and intimidation. And look at us: we have time, we have independence, flexibility, some knowledge of the administration, and such extreme security. Have you ever heard of a student getting fired? Maybe expelled.

So what do we do with those? For me, anyway, it’s become an interesting question of not only what potential I have, but also what responsibility I have to do what I can, particularly having developed personal relationships with staff members. I think its about finding the right balance of reflection, and definitely thinking about what your mission is. We maybe weren’t so clear about that from the beginning. And we wanted to be involved in a staff empowerment project. What we can’t do is make there be a union here at Swarthmore College. What we can do is brainstorm and then make steps towards making an environment that is more inclusive, that is it’s more comfortable, so that staff members feel more ready to put themselves out there if they choose to. It’s always going to be a risk for them, but maybe we can lessen it some.

If I think of myself as an activist now, that’s solely thanks to this campaign. I did activists stuff before freshman and sophomore years: did some death penalty stuff, I did some Iraq sanctions stuff, but this is on a completely different plane, in terms of the complications and commitment required. Because the people you are working with, talking about, and organizing with are right there in front of you, it’s a whole different kind of accountability. You have to take it pretty damn seriously, and I think that’s good. I think it’s healthy.

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.