What’s the difference between a “student” and a “worker”? In 1968, members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers took over South End, Wayne State University’s daily newspaper, and gave it a new subtitle: “One class-conscious worker is worth 100 students.” In 2015, Hillary Clinton released her “debt-free” college plan, calling for students to work ten hours a week without getting paid. Both ideas are off. The first needs updating: In a world of tuition and debt, the vast majority of students are also workers. This includes upwards of a million students working on campus, on par with Walmart’s domestic workforce. The second—the idea that student work should be compensated or treated any differently from other work—is the target of a new, national movement.
On February 26, 300 students at the University of Pittsburgh marched calling for $15 an hour for student workers. Following the action, United Students Against Sweatshops launched the Student Worker Organizing Committee to bring #15onCampus to schools across the country. These efforts build off a September victory in Seattle, where student workers at the University of Washington won the same $15 wages as others in the city. Nationwide, students are demanding higher wages, an end to harassment and discrimination on the job, “just cause” protections, and more. Together, these demands set the stage for larger battles over the means and ends of higher education.
In this post, students from five campuses talk about their campaigns to win higher pay and labor rights. This post is the latest edition of the Nation’s student and youth organizing feature, edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky). For more, check out February 3 and February 18.
In Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, a New Kind of Labor Movement
By Luke Gangler, Amy Jochsett, Danny Levandoski, Samuel Park, Sophia Rogers & Cornell Zbikowski, University of Wisconsin–Madison
From the destruction of public sector collective bargaining to “right to work,” Scott Walker has made it nearly impossible for campus workers to certify a union, bargain over working conditions, or fund ourselves. At every turn, students have fought back. On Valentine’s Day in 2011, the Teaching Assistants’ Association and the Student Labor Action Coalition, USAS Local 1, led a march to the state capitol to protest Scott Walker’s infamous anti-union legislation. Just days later, more than 100,000 angry workers and students were in the streets, demanding their basic workplace rights.
In 2016, we’re still fighting for fair wages and representation—now on Bascom Hill instead of the capitol, and using organizing tactics that predate the existence of legal union representation. Bringing together workers from dining halls, libraries, housing, and other vital departments, we are demanding that Chancellor Rebecca Blank establish a campus-wide living wage of $15 an hour. Additionally, we are demanding a student-run grievance process, campus-wide workplace policies approved by students, and, in solidarity with the TAA, fair wages for graduate assistants, who earn 13 percent less than they did in 2002.
These concerns are nothing new. In 1969, UW graduate students formed the first student worker union and went on strike demanding a uniform grievance policy and an end to discriminatory policies. Undergraduates refused to go to class in solidarity. The next year, undergraduate student workers formed the Memorial Union Student Labor Organization—one of the only undergraduate student-worker unions, which lasted until UW administration dismantled it in 2004.
In February, the Student Labor Action Coalition delivered our demands to the chancellor. Since then, we have called out her hypocritical speaking engagements addressing poverty in the greater Madison area and brought the fight to the workplace, picketing at dining halls and engaging student workers, students, and allies.
Together, we are fighting not only poverty wages and poor workplace conditions, but systematic discrimination. Student workers report sexual, sexist, and homophobic harassment from management. One worker was told by human resources staff that the solution to an inaccessible workplace was to “keep [her] disability out of the workplace.” Just a few months later, she was illegally fired on the basis of her disability.
The administration says that the “student hourly positions are never meant to pay for someone’s college education,” and that student workers are students first. Likewise, the campus-wide raise to $9 that it announced last month is inadequate for undergraduate student workers and didn’t affect nearly half of us. Meanwhile, the chancellor says that she can’t envision a raise beyond $9 an hour in the foreseeable future. Students are fed up—and, with our collective power, we believe that we can win.
The Price of the Glass Ceiling
By Lily Luo, Wellesley College
At the beginning of the school year, Wellesley was, as far as we knew, the only college failing to financially compensate its Residential Assistants with a salary or housing. RAs didn’t receive free housing or a stipend, even though they were expected to come early for orientation and be available for nine hours of work per week throughout the school year. Over the past five years, they’ve relied on yearly student referendums to allocate a small stipend, which itself only came out of the student activity fee rather than from the college itself.
In August of last year, we founded Wellesley’s Student Labor Action Project chapter to confront class issues and financial inaccessibility at Wellesley. We realized that supporting those who had been fighting for RA compensation was a perfect place to start. The administration’s failure to pay RAs is part of a larger pattern: low-income students are denied many of the opportunities Wellesley offers. In order to afford the college’s $60,000 yearly price tag, they need to spend much of their “extracurricular” time in paid activities.
We began mobilizing campus support for RA compensation through a poster campaign, allowing students to share why RA compensation was important for them. Some students were appalled that a school committed to helping women shatter the glass ceiling would fail to compensate students for doing real emotional labor. Some pointed out that a school guaranteeing to meet all demonstrated need should make sure that, once on campus, students can support themselves and participate fully in campus life.
Using pressure created by our poster campaign, we held the administration to a firm deadline: by November 2 it needed to provide a comprehensive plan to pay RAs for the 2016-2017 school year. We planned a large-scale demonstration for that day that over 200 students committed to attend. Two days before our planned action, the school sent out a campus-wide email pledging to start compensating RAs next school year.
SLAP sees this victory as part of a continuing fight to make Wellesley more accessible. In February, we started a listening campaign to create a space where students feel comfortable talking about their experiences of financial inaccessibility. Seeing student workers on campuses like UMass Amherst form unions shows us that our work is far from over and that, when students collectively call for change, it can happen.
How the South Is Winning
By Lindsey Smith, University of Memphis
The United Campus Workers (UCW) was formed in 1999 alongside the Progressive Student Alliance, a local of United Students Against Sweatshops, to launch a living wage campaign for University of Tennessee workers. Our mission is to advance the interests of Tennessee higher education staff and faculty.
In 2010, UCW launched a campaign in Memphis to raise the wage of campus workers. Students and workers pushed for a citywide living wage ordinance, but Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill that prohibited local governments from mandating health insurance benefits, leave policies, hourly wage standards, or prevailing wage standards that went beyond the existing requirements of state and federal law. In response, organizing efforts redirected pressure toward the University of Memphis administration—ultimately winning workers employed directly by the university a campus minimum wage raise to $10.10 per hour in 2014, starting in January 2015.
Now, Governor Haslam is pushing a privatization scheme that could undermine this win. Haslam’s plan promises to outsource all state-owned real estate, including state parks, prisons, hospitals, armories, and universities. The goal is to cut costs—in other words, lower wages and slash the benefits that these workers have fought for, while advancing the fiscal austerity of the Republican dominated legislature. Similar privatization measures have been detrimental to state infrastructure and public services. Over the past eight months, we have united across the state. We’ve held rallies, phone banks, teach-ins, and sit-ins, to tell Governor Haslam that Tennessee is not for sale.
We recognize that our struggle with labor issues is deeply rooted in the oppression of other marginalized groups, from the largely black workforce at the University of Memphis’s physical plant to the oppression faced by Tennessee’s students of color. Labor issues, especially in the South, are inextricably linked to the struggles of people of color. None of us are free until all of us are free, and we will fight for the power of students and workers until collective liberation comes to fruition.
$15, a Union, and Much More
By Brooke Petersen, San Diego State University
The Fight for Fifteen’s arrival in San Diego in August 2013 jump-started San Diego State University student participation in the labor movement, culminating in a campus day of action for $15 and a successful union drive in April 2015. Students have tied the call for higher wages to food and housing insecurity. Last spring, the California State University commissioned a year-long study of student poverty. Almost a quarter of students reported going hungry, and 12 percent reported housing insecurity—in a system that spent $2 million remodeling its presidents’ homes.
Our calls for a campus-wide $15 minimum wage and union recognition for undergraduate student workers are part of a list of 20 demands from SDSU’s Multicultural Coalition, launched on March 2. From divestment to fee freezes to Ethnic and Gender Studies requirements, the list creates a united platform for ethical change. At a tense visit from CSU chancellor Tim White, we read our demands. Although the microphone was cut on our first speaker, we were ready, and each demand was taken up by a new voice.
Indeed, our wages are only one lever of power between students and the administration. The fee freeze, executive salary freeze, and resources for people of color—who are disproportionately paid lower wages—are equally important in creating economic sustainability. Over the past several years, we’ve won a majority vote of students on divestment from corporations complicit in human rights violations in occupied Palestine, while mobilizing hundreds against fee hikes, anti-Muslim hate crimes, and sexual violence at SDSU. Only when SDSU stops seeking exploitative profit—whether from fossil fuels, war industries, or student debt—will it create the environment we need for work and learning.
As students realize the value of our own work, we see ourselves as part of a larger, university-wide struggle. Concurrent with our demands, food and retail workers on campus are facing significant resistance to their unionizing efforts, and CSU faculty are preparing to strike April 13 to 19. We stand in support of the strike and are building a strike fund to help low-wage campus workers join.
What’s a Month Without Pay in the City?
By Samuel Falcone-Coffin, Columbia University
Joining students at New York University and City College, Columbia’s Student-Worker Solidarity is organizing for a minimum wage of $15 for all campus workers. Despite Columbia’s $9 billion endowment, conversations with student workers and our own experiences demonstrate a shortage of work-study jobs for students from working class backgrounds, jobs without livable wages (many starting at $9), and chronic (and illegal) reports of payroll backlog amounting to months without pay. Currently, vital services like emergency first response, sexual violence response, and nightline mental health support hotline operate on a volunteer basis—leaving these crucial and enriching positions open only to students who can afford to devote their time to unpaid labor.
After dozens of conversations with student workers, we held a student worker organizing meeting with more than 50 attendees, who shared their visions of Columbia’s work-study program. In October, student workers flooded the provost’s steps, telling stories of working three jobs to make ends meet and being unable to work enough hours to fulfill their entire work study award. In November, brandishing a paper mache effigy, we brought our demand for backpay of overtime wages directly to Barnard President Debora Spar. Continually, we’ve had to remind the university of its commitment to the prosperity of all students.
For its part, despite meeting with students and hearing extensive testimony detailing the realities of low wages and payroll backlog, the administration has yet to support the demands of our campaign in any meaningful sense. We have, however, gathered 600 student signatures and the support of a growing number of academic departments. We’ve also started to win: After our rally in October, Campus Public Safety, one of the largest student employers, announced that it would raise its wage to $15.
In December, we formed the Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network. This coalition brings the struggle in direct relationship with others: for climate justice, for justice in Palestine, to end rape culture, and around issues specific to communities of color. To win, we must situate the campaign for a living wage in the collective fight for a better world for everyone.