Kevin* has worked in the same Northwestern dining hall for 12 years. “Thirteen years on April 22nd,” he says repeatedly, with a smile that reveals a few missing teeth and a sense of pride. Kevin can’t afford health insurance or dental coverage. He recently waited eight hours in a Cook County hospital to get several decayed teeth pulled, a common and cost-effective means of dealing with dental issues.
Kevin makes around $10 per hour—even though he’s been at Northwestern for more than a decade. Without enough money to start a savings account, he spends four dollars each week to cash his checks at a local currency exchange. But Kevin still speaks of his time at Northwestern with fondness, directed mainly toward the “darn good workers” he spends hours with each day prepping and cleaning. He makes sure to remember each co-worker’s first and last name in every story he tells.
But Kevin has felt the effects of tight controls on labor costs through staff cutbacks and an avoidance of overtime pay. Under a previous manager, Kevin was given a long list of cleanup tasks to complete before locking up, but was also told to punch out by 8:30 p.m. every night, as the company did not want to pay for overtime hours. With only three people left at closing, Kevin spent several nights working until 9, 10 or 11 p.m. off the clock and unpaid. Kevin gives these details slowly and reluctantly. “I couldn’t leave it until the next day,” he says, who had mentioned the issue to his unresponsive manager. “It was some tough times, sure was.”
Riding the “organizing high” of the Obama campaign they had both worked on, SESP senior Conrad Hendrickson and Weinberg junior Adam Yalowitz asked their NCDC education committee members to find an issue on campus they could organize around at the beginning of fall quarter. Weinberg sophomores Caity Callahan and Maggie Birkel came to them with the issue of labor relations on campus. By the end of October, they had met with dining hall managers and the representative unions on campus. “It’s one of those issues that when you talk about seems obvious, but it isn’t talked about often,” Yalowitz says. “One of the goals is to really change the way students and workers interact… It’s an issue of defining community. Workers should be included in the Northwestern community.”
So Yalowitz and Hendrickson began a petition in November 2009 to raise the compensation of Northwestern employees from what is often around $10 an hour to $13.23 an hour with health care benefits. “At first Maurice [Nix] laughed at us,” Yalowitz says of the Norris Union Steward’s initial response. “He didn’t think a lot of students cared.” The petition has since garnered over 1200 signatures, more than 30 of which are from faculty members.
Hendrickson and Yalowitz then went to President Schapiro last December with concerns that Northwestern staff was not being paid decent wages.
Since then, Northwestern administration has said they are open to discussing the issue. But concerns remain about the feasibility of finding the estimated $2 million to $5 million that the Living Wage ordinance would cost Northwestern. “Revenues don’t just grow because you and I want them to,” says Eugene Sunshine, senior vice president of business and finance. Sunshine says paying workers a living wage would mean tradeoffs and cutbacks with other university priorities, like faculty salaries and financial aid. “That’s a very substantial amount of money. You have to prioritize. Where is the money supposed to come from?”
While Schapiro and the rest of the administration have said they will “strive to provide fair compensation…sufficient to meet the basic needs of its personnel,” It’s unclear what this looks like in a paycheck. Does the $250 to $300 workers take home weekly pay for their apartment rent, public transportation, weekly groceries, co-pays on their doctor visits, cell phone bills, and car payments? Does the compensation of a full-time employee provide childcare for their child at home, a plane ticket to attend a niece’s wedding, and money to get by in those unpaid weeks every December when students head of to Christmas break? For the 57 percent of Northwestern employees making less than $10 per hour, and the 91 percent making below a living wage — is it enough?
Sodexo employee Suzanne* wakes up at 6:00 a.m. every morning. After getting her 7 year old granddaughter (who she often refers to as her daughter) ready and off to school, she comes home to clean the one-bedroom apartment they share. “She’s got [the bedroom] now, because she’s growing. So last year we painted it and fixed it all up,” Suzanne says with the tiny, ironic laugh she sprinkles throughout the conversation. “So her mommy’s on the couch.”
She then spends an hour or so searching the newspaper for a second job opportunity. Suzanne found her job at Northwestern six months ago, after two years of unemployment. She had worked for $14 per hour at a printing shop in Chicago (a job she says is comparable in demand and skill), but was laid off when the printer closed. Even though she now works five days a week from 11:30 a.m. till 8:30 p.m., the $240 she takes home weekly isn’t enough to earn herself her own bedroom or buy her granddaughter the computer she needs for school.
Suzanne heads home from Evanston around 8:30, or 9:00 on Sundays. After an hour and 15 minute commute on public transportation to the Ravenswood neighborhood in North Side of Chicago, she heads off to pick up her granddaughter from her sister’s house. Suzanne can’t afford a stay-in sitter that would get her young granddaughter to bed earlier, as the $60 a week she pays her sister already takes a quarter of her weekly income. The two often don’t get to bed until 11 p.m. every night. “[She’s] all cranky, my poor baby,” Suzanne says with a slight shake of her head. “I barely make ends meet to pay the babysitter.”
What defines a living wage? Dr. Robert Pollin, founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-author of A Measure of Fairness: The Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States defined it as “a wage that is adequate to enable the worker to support themselves and their family. It allows them to be secure, to maintain self respect, [and] to participate in the life of their community.”
The organizers of the campaign calculated a tentative rate of $13.23 with health care benefits through the Illinois Self-Sufficiency Standard as a living wage for Northwestern workers. At this income, a family with two wage earners should be able to support two children. “No one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” says Jenna Kim, assistant director of Asian-American Studies at Northwestern and a past Union organizer.
In November 2009, a full-time dining hall employee was still not making enough to house their family, living instead in a local homeless shelter, according to union steward and head cook Rafael Marquez. The workers of their dorm quickly rallied to create a “hardship fund” to get their coworker on his feet. It’s common to blame homelessness on unemployment, but with housing market prices, this isn’t always the case. Increases in national and statewide minimum wages rise much more slowly than the cost of living, especially in the expensive neighborhoods around Northwestern. In 1968, an employee working full-time at minimum wage made a living 20 percent above the national poverty line for a family of three. Now, 42 years later in an economy twice as active, a person working full-time on minimum wage earns 25 percent below the three-person level poverty line. Many Northwestern workers classify as the “working poor,” or those employed full-time but still unable to make ends meet.
Food services employment at Northwestern also has the added hardship of being primarily seasonal. “Only the people with the seniority get to stay,” says Maurice Nix, Union Steward for the employees of Norris Center, or, as many students know him, the man that makes the best wraps in the Norris Food Court. Hours are cut drastically during student breaks, if not entirely. Many workers file for unemployment checks during this time off, a strain on both finances and pride. These fewer shifts can also affect employee’s health insurance coverage. Depending on their plan, workers may be left uncovered for several weeks during the vacation, or facing huge payments upon returning to work in January. “It’s good when it’s good, but when the hours are not here, they’re not here,” Nix says.
Most Northwestern workers don’t live in Evanston, where the average monthly rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,805. Many commute daily from the far South or West Sides of Chicago. Longtime employee Eva’s* commute from the South side on the El takes two and a half hours every morning. “I come 22 miles every day, here, and I go 22 miles back,” she says. Eva’s well known in her dining hall for “telling it like it is,” a recognized face and strong personality who says she speaks to students as she would her own children.
Eva’s grown son is now helping her finance a car, which will cut down her commute. Parking is not provided, and employees can choose to pay seven dollars a day to park in the lot, or arrive particularly early in order to find sometimes-distant street parking. But despite the absurd travel time and cost of transportation, it’s preferable to trying to make it in the overpriced surrounding neighborhoods. “I know I never could live up here. Evanston is so high, it’s ridiculous,” Eva says dismissively.
The question of how to raise wages is tangled in Northwestern’s indirect relationship with its dining hall employees. In 1972, Northwestern switched from running food services on campus themselves to contracting to various outside companies. Sodexo has now been in charge of Northwestern dining since 1998, and Northwestern Human Resources does not deal directly with Sodexo employees.
“When the university was running everything, they tried to be fairly generous,” says Willard head chef and union steward Tom Breitsprecher, who has worked at Northwestern for almost 31 years. According to Breitsprecher, Northwestern took part in profit-sharing programs and tried to provide for the majority of healthcare costs. But food service corporations like Sodexo mainly answer to themselves in terms of worker care and compensation.
“In the service industry, it used to be ‘if we take care of our workers, they’ll take care of our customers,’” he says. “Now [they’re] seen more as a cost or liability rather than an asset.” By contracting out, Northwestern can save money on food services, and pass their responsibility to the employees of on-campus dining. “[Northwestern administration] pretty much can wash their hands of employee issues,” Breitsprecher says.
Sunshine emphasizes that there is a separation between Northwestern and the staff of contracted companies like Sodexo. “The university has a contract, but they’re not our employees,” Sunshine says. The university has no legal obligations toward the workers of Northwestern food services, he says.
Sunshine maintained that demanding Sodexo raise its wages would step on the responsibility of the representing unions to debate such issues. Sodexo and union representatives meet every two years to discuss wage raises, which generally result in nickel or dime increases. Most recently in the fall of 2009, Sodexo adamantly maintained that they could not afford more than a nickel raise for workers due to the recession. However, after further negotiation, the union won a 55-cent increase for Northwestern Sodexo employees.
If Sodexo handles the employees, is there even anything administration can do to raise wages to a living standard? Organizers say the size of the Northwestern client is enough leverage to make Sodexo comply with any demands made by the university. In 2008, the combination of retail, catering, and resident dining services on Northwestern amounted to $27.11 million in revenue. Campus organizers are targeting their efforts on pressuring the Northwestern administration to alter their contract with Sodexo. “We can leverage student power with the administration much more than we can with Sodexo,” Hendrickson says. “They should be accountable.”
While Eva treks to work each morning, others have struggled to find lodging closer to work. Rick*, a soft-spoken but affable line cook, was able to find convenient housing nearby – at the local YMCA. He’s one of three Sodexo workers who rent rooms there monthly, a living situation comparable to that of dormitory living on campus. “I’m paying about 500 dollars a month,” Rick says, with the Village People’s “YMCA” pumping ironically through the dining room speakers.
Rick has worked as a cook in several different restaurants, and someday aspires to attend cooking school. At the Y, “they’ve got a microwave on each floor, but I still don’t have a stove,” he says simply. If wages were increased, Rick might get his own stove, kitchen and even bathroom. “I would be able to find somewhere nicer to live. I’d be able to afford it even though I have other bills,” he says.
Opponents of the campaign say a living wage will “out-price” current employees. By raising the lowest wages, the university or Sodexo will need to cut back on labor costs and thus lay off existing employees. “Somebody’s going to lose their job,” Sunshine says, speculating that four employees with wages raised by $2 would replace one $8 an hour employee. “[And] in this financial climate, a lot of people are already unemployed.”
But others question the math and logic behind such conclusions. According to Pollin and Weinberg senior and organizer Matt Fischler, higher wages often results in much lower turnover rates. By raising wages, you are not removing jobs, but rather creating financial security for those already employed. Jobs with more longevity can often result in higher productivity for companies, Pollin says. Kim also points out that higher wages mean more money being put back into the market economy through consumer spending.
“What we’re fighting against fundamentally is that idea that these people have this assigned commodity value,” says Kyle Schaffer, a Northwestern alum and current organizer for Unite Here labor union. “I think it’s kind of a twisted thing if you start to think that raising workers wages somehow hurts the workers. It doesn’t play out that way.”
John* works in the same dining hall as his mother and sister. After his father was laid off from work the previous year, John gives a significant portion of his weekly $300 income toward paying the bills they all share. John speaks pragmatically, in numbers, rough figures and cost estimates. More difficult for him is talking about the emotional aspect of his father’s unemployment. “He was very depressed, didn’t want to go out, didn’t want to eat. Our morale was down the drain,” he says.
John and his family had been visiting family in Mexico City before receiving the news. Like many others, his parents left Mexico for economic opportunity. “You work to live a better life,” he says, reiterating his mother’s mentality.
“I was supposed to go to college when I started here at Sodexo,” John says, hoping to study computer science. But the cost for a four-year university degree seemed insurmountable, and John was reluctant to ask for a loan he might not be able to pay back. In an ironic inversion of the American dream, John now hopes to save up enough money to go back to Mexico to earn a degree, where it will be cheaper. The economic opportunities his parents came to the United States in the first place seem further away than ever. “[The administration] probably thinks whatever they’re paying us is fair,” John says.
John’s financial obstacles are not unique. Student organizer Hendrickson spoke of a young food service worker who’s seen similar economic blocks to the educational opportunities students at Northwestern can enjoy. “I’ve been working with him to try and get him enrolled in community college,” Hendrickson says. “We’ve always hit a road block because he doesn’t have the money to stop working and go to school. He’s got the will…all he’s lacking is the money and the resources.”
“Northwestern’s budget should not be balanced on the backs of workers.” These were the words of President Morton Schapiro during his first meeting with the Living Wage Campaign organizers in December. But at press time they have rejected submitted plans to raise wages.
Eva was hoping to go back to school, but can’t afford it. Rick worries it may be too late for him to enroll in culinary classes, something he’d always wanted to do. Lauren*, a college graduate and dining hall employee, hopes her son can someday have the chance to attend a school like Northwestern. Suzanne’s granddaughter wants to become a nurse, but Suzanne struggles to provide things like the computer she needs for her schoolwork.
“My comfort at college was born on the backs of men and women [who] could not afford to send their children to school,” says Kim, who graduated from Columbia and became a labor activist. “How is my privilege built on the exploitation of others? What does a liberal arts education mean if not to better the lives of others?”
*Workers names have been changed, as they have been asked not to speak to the media