On this page, I've collected some of my thoughts on activism and
the living wage. In particular, three issues seemed to me both important
and interesting: the difference between organizing
and advocacy; the limits
of "rational dialogue"; and the personally
transformative power of living wage activism. The thoughts
here aren't particularly extensive, but hopefully will give some
feel of the non-economic issues involved in the campaign.
For more detail, the entire report on the project will be available
soon, "The Meaning of a Campus Living Wage" with all the
interviews and other information. Please contact me if you would
like a draft.
Organizing versus advocacy.
Nearly every activist mentioned the importance of coalition building
to the success of Living Wage campaigns. However, many activist
found a deeper purpose in community organizing: to give the least-advantaged
a lasting voice and power in the decisions of cities and universities.
What Matthew Jerzyk
calls "old-school organizing" represents a return to the
ideals of more democratic control over local policies.
Instead of speaking for employees, activists tried to
ensure employees had their own voice, and the power—through
voting and unions—to make others listen. When researchers,
the media, or even activists focus exclusively on the living wage
as a policy proposal, the deeper purpose and goal of the
campaigns are missed: the long-term enablement of low-wage employees
to speak (and bargain) for themselves. Advocacy alone cannot accomplish
these larger goals of empowerment.
The limits of rational dialogue.
In defending their decision to sit-in during the spring of 2001,
Harvard activists took pains to explain that no other option remained:
that "rational dialogue" had failed to produce the changes
they wanted. More broadly, reasoned discourse couldn't work alone.
The Living Wage campaign disputes pitted individuals with very different
levels of power: students versus universities, employees versus
employers, community organizations versus city legislatures. In
each of these relationships, formidable power differences remained,
and no ethical or economic argument alone could convince the powerful
to heed the requests of the less powerful.
The myth of effective “rational dialogue” was a myth
all activists—from Swarthmore to Harvard to ACORN—abandoned
during the course Living Wage campaigns.
Transformation and the Future.
Finally, many students described the Living Wage campaign as a transformative
experience. Activists in the Living Wage campaigns learned about
the world and themselves in a radically different way than they
had in the classroom. Social inequality, power relations, and the
ideals of democracy became more real for the students involved.
The non-student activists also spoke of a transformation in the
students they worked with. In the students, some saw the beginnings
of a larger social transformation in American society. As Elaine
Bernard pointed out during our interview, when was the last time
"Ivy League" students were concerned about the low pay
of university staff? The living wage campaigns are the result of
an enlargement of a social conscience, one that will, I suspect,
continue to guide the activists involved in these campaigns (and
those they influence) into the future.