Page: Lessons &
Lessons: Each of the activists I interviewed offered
their advice to students on how to run a successful living wage
campaign. Below I've collected their thoughts on how to be (and
how not to be) an effective organizer and activist on campus.
Guides: For more concrete advice, there are manuals,
guides, and case studies available on the internet as well:
for campus living wage campaigns: student
activsts have written
this manual available through United for a Fair Economy.
wage campaign guide: a shorter, online version of a
guide written authored by researchers at ACORN (Jen Kern) and Wayne
State (David Reynolds). The full
report and more info is available through ACORN.
wage flyers from Harvard: powerful flyers from the
Harvard campaign. More flyers from the campaign are also available
(4) Case study
of Colorado College campaign: organizers of a successful
campus living wage campaign have written a very
complete case study, covering what worked and want didn't. The Colorado
College campaign website is available here.
(5) The Midwest Academy has written a more general guide on organizing,
for Social Change" (suggested by Anissa
Question: "What advice or suggestions do you have
for activists elsewhere?"
Student activist, Brown University
"I think an important thing is to make sure that workers are
involved—that you find out what the concerns of employees
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."
Bernstein, Senior Economist, Economic Policy Institute
"Educate yourself on the arguments, so that you’re an
articulate advocate for the policy, not simply on the basis of social
justice (which is key), but also on the basis of economic evidence.
It’s very important to educate yourself on those arguments.
But secondly, realize that ultimately it is a social justice argument,
and you should feel confident in pushing that side of the coin.
You can’t forget the other side because if it actually did
hurt people, you wouldn’t want to support it. But the economists
and the economic arguments ultimately not going to win the day here.
They can help dispose of irrelevant and incoherent arguments proffered
by the other side, but ultimately this is about equity and not wholly
about efficiency. Learn about the economic side of the argument
but don’t for a minute think that’s the whole story
because it is only part of it."
Bernard, Director, Harvard Trade Union Program
"The one point I would make is one we talked about earlier.
Unfortunately, for these campaigns to really have a lasting impact,
you have to leave behind an institution. And the institution that
gives these workers some power and some voice is a union.
Ultimately it’s a good thing to win money and improve the
wages and working conditions for employees, but ultimately it’s
best to actually leave them with something that they themselves
own, which is in fact their own organization. Even when the relationships
get a little strained and tough with unions, you have to go back
to it. Ultimately, I think that any victory can disappear in a year
or two if the workers don’t have their own organization. What’s
tricky here is to do that while keeping pressure on the union to
make the union real, to make it democratic.
I think students can help do this. I think they already have. They
have done it in a number of ways: they have done it by invigorating
the campuses; they have done it by raising some of these grievances;
they have done it by putting the spotlight on these issues. I’ve
seen it here at Harvard. A couple of the unions that were pretty
sleepy until this campaign have managed to build leaders, indigenous
leaders right here on campus, who are now outspoken and knowledgeable
and are rising in the union. That’s a good thing.
But it's also understanding that ultimately the students need to
work with the union, and cannot completely be a
substitution for it. The union itself has its role to play. Students
shaking it up, getting it onboard, jump starting it is great. But
ultimately, you can’t abandon it."
Blair, Student activist, Swarthmore College
"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."
DiMaggio, Student activist, Harvard University
"Number one, don’t be afraid of workers. Talk to them
as much as you can, get to know them- that should be a central part
of your campaign. It can be a central part of your learning experience
Focus on the educational aspects of all of this. Learn about the
labor movement, learn about the history. That helps you find out
exactly what you’re doing, and what you’re facing. Plus,
it’s fun to learn this stuff. That’s one way that I’m
able to enjoy doing this -- and you have to enjoy it. I think a
lot of people get frustrated on the focus of “work, work,
work.” I think a lot of people want to step back and analyze
what they’re doing, and make it part of their education. People
want to have fun while they’re doing it and not have to just
keep working, almost unthinkingly."
Eflenbein, Student activist, Harvard University
"Building coalitions. A movement for workers can’t happen
without workers and it can’t happen without community support.
Often you do see students trying to do it without workers. It’s
funny: a lot of people come to this by learning about Rawls or whatever
in some class and they get these ideas of justice. They are like,
“Maybe people at the bottom of the ladder should be higher
up. Maybe they should be paid enough to spend some time with their
kids.”And they go off and start a campaign to make that happen
and sort of assume that the workers will play as little of an active
role as they have before.
That’s a really flawed, problematic approach and one that’s
destined for failure or at least partial failure. Because the most
important part of this, in my view, is worker empowerment. The assault
isn’t of a purely economic nature, it’s also an assault
on dignity. What we’re fighting for here is one another’s
dignity. The work you do, the process of doing it, must be one that
respects dignity and recognizes the fundamental equality that exists.
It’s this word that gets tossed around irreverently: solidarity,
which I think is an extremely powerful concept.
How did we know that using the press was going to be an effective
tactic? I mean, we had to think about where we had power. We clearly
aren’t going to use physical force, we were not going to try
to wrestle President Rudenstine to the ground and twist his arm
until he agreed to a living wage. But we could do that metaphorically
through public shaming. I mean, what else do we have but the moral
impact of the issue? What can you appeal to beside a basic sense
of justice? There isn’t really much else."
Jerzyk, Director, Rhode Island Jobs with Justice
"I think students have the ability to be amazing organizers
in four ways.
The first way is, since they are at centers of knowledge production,
to utilize their location. For instance: we have to produce newspapers,
fliers, research reports, and analyses—all different kinds
of “sit at a computer for a couple of hours and hammer out
a fact sheet.” Students can do this. They have access to high-speed
computers, they have access to the internet, to big libraries—they
can do this type of research for campaigns such as ours.
The second thing is, since again the universities are the center
of knowledge production, students have the capcity to hold public
forums, workshops, teach-ins, and anything else they can do to expose
the issue and try to find the truth about the issue. We keep pushing
the Brown Student-Labor Alliance to do public forums, to bring in
some academics, some activists, the Chamber of Commerce representatives,
and host a debate. We keep pushing them to use the university as
a tool to get at the heart of the issue.
The third thing that student activists and student activism could
contribute to a living wage campaign is the ability to energize
and bring a vitality. The workers in our campaign are mostly bus
monitors, teacher’s assistants, and bus drivers. And these
are mostly 33-50 year old Dominican, Bolivian, Haitian, and Liberian
low-wage immigrant workers. They’re working two jobs, and
when we have a meeting and stuff, students have the ability to make
puppets, drums, and a real youthfulness to meetings. I think that
is really, really powerful. The success of a campaign can turn on
the energy in a room where you have a meeting.
The fourth thing is utilizing, again, the location of where students
are, which means utilizing the power of their university and organizing
inside their university. A large part of what, in the past year,
I’ve tried to encourage among the campuses we work with (which
is Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, and
the University of Rhode Island) is building multi-issue or multi-racial
coalitions on campus. How do you as a student-labor alliance (you’re
all white kids) talk to other student groups who are on campus around
this issue? Because, you know what, when you graduate you’re
going to be like me and you’re going to have to be doing the
same thing. You might as well start now."
Kalwaic, Assistant Administrator and Organizer,
"I think the main lesson is that it is not fighting for the
figures. It is fighting for greater fairness and equality in our
wage structure, and truly valuing the contribution of every worker.
The other lesson I’ve learned is that the only way you’re
going to get a living wage is not through any kind of concessions
from the administration, but through the exertion of your own power
or influence. Don’t expect it to be handed down as a gift.
You have to get out there, you’ve got to agitate, you’ve
got to put it on the table, and you’ve got to advocate for
yourself. A lot of what we do in this campaign is educating, and
that takes a long time. It is true democracy, because you are trying
to educate people about what their rights are, about what you can
do, and about what you can do when you go out there. I don’t
know if there’s any venue in any of the educational institutions
that says, “Okay, how are you going to go out and fight for
The university only changes when people demand their rights, and
do so in a way that puts it out there for public attention. When
people come forward for their rights publicly, that’s when
the institution realizes that something’s going on here, and
that they better address it."
Katz, Professor of Economics, Harvard University
"Advice number one is do your homework. The more knowledgeable
one is about the actual facts of what happened the better. How do
wages at this institution compare to other places? What are the
trends in the labor market? What’s the history? In the initial
stages, you can do a bit of sort of chanting. There are different
roles. But I think it's important to do one’s homework, be
engaged in the hard work of coming up with a constructive solution,
and, importantly, to know when to declare victory.
If you make progress, there’s a part where you need to move
on to other issues, or you need to set up some institutional way
of dealing with more collaborative activity. And it may not be that
the same people are good at all these things: it is not clear that
the best rabble-rousers are going to be the best at implementing
plans, and that’s important. Once one has a victory at one
place, think about how to channel it to others. Fighting the last
war continuously is probably not the right strategy."
Kern, Director, Living Wage Resource Center, ACORN
"This could be more than just what you’re doing in college—this
could be your life. The problems that you’re addressing now
have been around for years, they are going to be around for years,
and the employee pool for them is way too low. You need to get into
this, and we need to build staff for the movement. Make activism
your life. Don’t treat it as something you’re doing
before you go on to law school.
Students are actually gaining great skills, and they are smart.
I’m completely impressed by these student organizers. They
have a good set of instincts, but they can be honed if they do Union
Summer, or train at the AFL-CIO organizing institute, or they
come to work for ACORN. Wait
until you see what you can do. It’s the most rewarding job
you could have."
Ray & Amy Offner, Student activists, Harvard
a political or community campaign isn’t a check-list- there
aren’t three steps. It involves being in a particular community,
knowing that community, then beginning to think about what are your
resources and what are the abilities of the group that can be called
"Roona: To do community
organizing of any sort you need to learn about the diversity of
people and talents that you have in that community, and try to engage
and use people in their diversity of talents. In engaging the powers
that be, really the stance that you need to take is in opposition,
because in most places you are not going to be working with a democratic
structure. I don’t know if waxing rhetorically is that effective."
Rutter, Student activist, Brown University
"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."
Weinraub, Student activist, Brown University
"I think that activists don’t quite know what a coalition
is and think that its really just the same activist people getting
together under another name--but that's not what it’s about.
It’s really about delegates from different organizations coming
together to build a coalition that they then take back to their
separate organizations. It’s not “Hey, do you guys want
to come to our thing?” Rather, it’s “How do we
want to create this together because we all have an interest in
getting this thing passed?”
If you are going to do a coalition for the living wage or stop
police brutality on your campus, it's important you don’t
just get folks out because they want "to be a part of things."
You get folks out because everyone’s going to be committed
in a certain way. While you have your own take on it and perspective
on it because of the group you’re coming from, you’re
all going to be committed to it. Coalition building is really important.
People might want to look at Organizing
for Social Change: Midwest Academy Manual for Activists, or
just the chapter on coalition building.
In the city campaign, it is not or nor should it be about us. We
are here to support in any way, to do any kind of leg-work or any
other sort of work in this ward [Rita William’s ward, the
local city councilwoman] to get folks on the side of the living
wage. You do the foot work and you do it well, and be committed.
Don’t flake out, because this is really important."