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: Lessons & Guides

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:

(1) Manual for campus living wage campaigns: student activsts have written this manual available through United for a Fair Economy.

(2) Living 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.

(3) Living wage flyers from Harvard: powerful flyers from the Harvard campaign. More flyers from the campaign are also available here.

(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, entitled, "Organizing for Social Change" (suggested by Anissa Weinraub).


Question: "What advice or suggestions do you have for activists elsewhere?"

Peter Asen, 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 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."

Jared 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."

Elaine 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."

Sam 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."

Dan 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 in life.

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."

Madeline 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."

Matthew 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."

Kae Kalwaic, Assistant Administrator and Organizer, Swarthmore College

"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 your rights?”

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."

Lawrence 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."

Jen 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."

Roona Ray & Amy Offner, Student activists, Harvard University

"Amy: Organizing 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 on."

"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."

Nick 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."

Anissa 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."

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
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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.