What attracted you to the Living
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
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
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
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
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.