Right now, hundreds of members of the Northwestern family are being treated unfairly. They are paid poverty wages, not enough to provide for themselves and their families. Just last year, there was a case of a dining hall worker who was discovered to be homeless. As a nonprofit institution whose mission is to do good, we have a moral responsibility to act to end poverty and economic injustice on our own campus.
In his inaugural address, President Schapiro stressed that “with privilege comes responsibility … the values of a university are revealed not in its words but in its actions … our non-profit status mandates that we promote the public good. That we must do, and do well.” He continued, saying that “All of us deserve to be at an institution that’s sensitive to our needs and to our aspirations.” It is rare that our campus food service workers and janitorial staff are given the opportunity to have their needs and aspirations heard, despite being an integral part of our Northwestern community. We feel that students, faculty and the Northwestern administration have a unique opportunity to build a more inclusive and accommodating community by adopting a living wage policy that requires all contractors to pay their employees a living wage and provide adequate health care benefits.
Over 1200 students and 36 faculty have joined the campaign for living wages for all Northwestern workers, signing our petition, meeting with administrators and workers, and training as community organizers. But to build a truly inclusive community, we need real leadership from President Schapiro, not just empty rhetoric.
Last Thursday, two articles ran parallel on the front page of The Daily Northwestern: in one, Eugene Sunshine, Northwestern’s V. P. for Business and Finance, claimed that the university is unable to pay all workers a living wage. Juxtaposed was a second article – reporting the rebound of our university endowment’s to almost $6 billion. We acknowledge that the costs of providing economic security to all Northwestern workers will impact the budget by $2-$5 million. However, we firmly believe this is a small sum (representing 1% of the annual discretionary budget) relative to the benefit to our community.
We understand that the primary priority of the university must be to provide an unparalleled, excellent educational experience and to promote academic research. Unfortunately, prestige alone cannot feed or house Northwestern workers’ families.
This is an opportunity for Northwestern to distinguish itself as a leader among our peer institutions in creating a truly inclusive educational community. Enacting a living wage policy sends a strong, positive message about Northwestern to the world — that we continue to strive towards a “university that reflects the loftiest of all ideals.”
The Northwestern community needs President Schapiro to take leadership on this issue now. As long as members of the Northwestern family are treated unjustly, we will never have a truly inclusive community. Fair compensation provides workers with the dignity and stability to contribute as full members of the university.
Northwestern is our campus, our community, and our home, and we believe that students, staff, faculty, and administration should constantly be working together to improve our community. To realize justice on our campus, students must take action, and action now.
Northwestern students have a demonstrated capacity to organize and win social justice campaigns. The movements for increased minority enrollment and programming in African American Studies, Asian American Studies and Latino/a Studies all show that when Northwestern students take collective action, they can effect positive change on campus. In recent years, students on several other college campuses across the country have led successful living wage campaigns. Our task will not be easy, but as Dr. King once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
Until we have a living wage policy that holds the university accountable for paying workers just wages, we will continue to organize, rally and publicly pressure the university to institute this necessary change. Learn more about the issue below.
Defining Self Sufficiency
The Self-Sufficiency Standard measures how much income a family of a certain composition in a given place needs to adequately meet their basic needs—without public or private assistance. The Self-Sufficiency Standard calculates a family sustaining wage that does not require choosing between basic necessities such as child care, nutritious food, adequate housing, or health care. Yet the Standard excludes longer-term needs such as retirement savings or college tuition, purchases of major items such as a car, emergency expenses, or extras such as gifts, video rentals, or soccer fees and therefore reflects a decent, though very modest, standard of living.
This September, Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center, in partnership with the University of Washington, Center for Women’s Welfare, released an updated report regarding the Self-Sufficiency Standards for over 100 areas in the state of Illinois. For a family of four, with one pre-school and one school-age child, and with both parents working full-time, the living wage to meet the Self-Sufficiency Standard in northern Cook County is $13.23, if the employer is providing health care coverage. Without health care coverage, the living wage rises to $14.67.’
How can students represent the needs of workers? Do unions support the campaign?
Yes, all labor unions represented on campus have endorsed the campaign including Unite Here Local 450, Service Workers United, and SEIU Local 1. Union leaders such as Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU’s Illinois State Council, have sent statements of support for our cause.
The majority of workers work entry-level positions (i.e. display cooks). Many Northwestern workers support their families on wages well below the federal poverty line. Current wages are not sufficient to meet workers’ basic needs — they are not even sufficient to meet the 2009 Federal Poverty Line.
Can Northwestern Afford a Living Wage?
Northwestern University has one of the largest endowments in the country, totaling nearly $6 billion. The Northwestern Living Wage Campaign estimates implementing a living wage with community benefits will cost $2-$5 million dollars. Out of an annual budget of $1.5 billion dollars, the university administration has discretion to allocate over $495 million The cost of a living wage represents only 1% of the discretionary budget.
If Northwestern implements a living wage, will workers lose their jobs?
While classic economic theory suggests that raising the wage floor prices low-income workers out of needed jobs, studies suggest that living wages have a minimal to negligible impact on workers. Low wages lead to a very high turnover among Northwestern workers. Studies have demonstrated that living wages at other major institutions have significantly increased job security. Living wages allow workers to fully participate in the Northwestern community because of the dignity associated with long-term economic security. In addition, current workers represented by unions cannot be fired without due cause; there are strong systems of accountability that allow workers to appeal every firing decision. Finally, our proposed policy mandates that Northwestern will actively protect the jobs of current employees. In fact, living wage policies reward people for an honest day’s work, instead of trapping hardworking people with full-time jobs in a cycle of poverty.
Fischler and Yalowitz are both undergraduates and part of the student leadership of the living wage campaign. To get involved, contact them at NUlivingwage@gmail.com