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: Reflections

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.

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
Feedback welcome
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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.