The living wage fight continues at NU

February 22, 2012

Icho Schmaluf tells the story of a fight by workers and students at Northwestern.

IN THE fall of 2009, a group of students from the Northwestern Community Development Corps circulated a petition that called for the university to pay a living wage to all its employees. The students gathered more than 1,000 signatures and delivered them along with a letter to university President Morton Schapiro. Schapiro promised to "look into it."

Over the next months, the Living Wage Campaign moved away from its innocent beginnings and grew to become the epicenter of student activism on the Northwestern campus. The group held large rallies, marches and even a small occupation of the president's office. But by the end of the school year, all the activists had won was one miserly concession: workers were allowed to ride university buses.

Despite some criticism from the student newspaper's editorial board (and, of course, the administration), the campaign amassed a large group of very committed activists in the course of its various demonstrations. More importantly, it developed ties with campus workers and helped them organize. Almost all dining hall workers are now members of UNITE HERE.

Northwestern students holding a picket as part of the living wage campaign
Northwestern students holding a picket as part of the living wage campaign

Finally, two years later in September 2011, union workers reached a landmark agreement with their employer Sodexho. The new contract immediately raised the minimum wage to $10 an hour and increased the wages of those who were already making that much by 80 cents--with the promise of more increases over the next few years. The agreement also won workers better health care benefits and contained provisions to protect immigrant workers.

Although the agreement fell short of the stated goal of a $13.23 per hour living wage, it was still better than anything the campaigners had hoped for.

But the celebrations did not last long. In the first days of January 2012, Sodexho announced it would cut two-and-a-half hours per week from the schedules of a large proportion of the workforce.

Though much of the Living Wage Campaign's momentum had dissipated by this point, the group's organizational network was nevertheless intact. In just a few days, the group reactivated its many supporters (and picked up a few new recruits, myself included), organized a petition drive, and scheduled a mass protest for January 16, which was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The mere whiff of protest during the university's homage to the watered-down image of Dr. King it prefers was sufficient to force Sodexho to renegotiate. After a meeting with the workers, management guaranteed that it would not implement any cuts. As a result, the Living Wage Campaign called off its protest and hosted a small, emotion-filled meeting in celebration.

THOUGH SODEXHO backed down this time, it is evident that Sodexho officials will continue to seek out ways to make workers work harder for less. The most recent episode in this battle highlights the need for a permanent network of students and workers prepared to fight back against any further cuts--and perhaps more importantly, to continue the offensive to improve the lives of campus workers.

We cannot allow campus activism to go into hibernation until the next time Sodexho or other subcontractors attempt to siphon a few more dimes from their employees. Students are only here for four years, so unless we're constantly renewing the group with new faces, the campaign will die out. And next time there's an urgent need to fight back, students will need to build a new movement from scratch.

As part of its efforts to fortify the level of activism on campus, the Living Wage Campaign will now put its sights on the Real Food Challenge, a movement to make campus food services provide food that is "ecological, healthy, humane, and that doesn't abuse workers at any point of the supply line," according to veteran Living Wage activist Will Bloom. He expects that the new campaign will allow the movement to grow by attracting people interested in the "environmental, consumer" side of things.

Bloom hopes that the fight for real food will forge a new group of activists ready to "learn about the way workers on this campus are treated" and who can be "galvanized" to fight for their own rights within the context of the larger food supply chain.

Although I welcome the effort, I'm skeptical that it will draw the kind of widespread support that the fight for a living wage had gathered. As I expressed at a recent meeting, I also worry that the focus on food rather than people will distract us from the problems that university workers face--and turn a powerful social justice movement into a consumer movement for better food on our campus. I also think it's short-sighted for such a large network of activists to put its eggs in the same basket, when there are many other fights to be waged on campus.

Tom Breitsprecher, a lead cook in the campus kitchens and longtime organizer, agrees that there are more pressing issues to fight for. "If you want real food, you need quality ingredients and skilled cooks, and real food requires real jobs with real wages," he said.

Although the current contract provides dining hall workers with a living wage, Breitsprecher says this is only a "solitary wage," which does not include "important considerations such as serious medical conditions, higher education, caring for infirm parents, children or spouses, and retirement," among others. He thinks we should be fighting for a "family wage bargain."

This is where I think campus activists can learn from the Occupy movement. It has showed us that it's possible to fight for multiple causes at the same time, while still maintaining a cohesive group of activists. A goal-oriented movement has its merits (easier to explain, easier to convince people to join), but there is more permanence in a movement that grows with each victory, instead of disbanding and regrouping around a new cause every time.

While an Occupy Northwestern group does exist, calling it tiny would be generous. We must continue to build alliances and organize together around common struggles. When we're divided into a multitude of groups each fighting for its own cause, we're forced to focus on small goals because of limited resources.

If we don't want to be like Sisyphus, doomed to roll rocks up the hill only to see them careen off the mountain once we've graduated, it's time to pool our resources and build a permanent force for social change to be reckoned with.

Perhaps more importantly, we need to break the barrier of apathy and create a culture of activism, a culture of fighting for what we believe in instead of passively accepting what the university administration thinks is right. The fight to show students the power of collective action will go on long after all of us have graduated, but the rewards are well worth the price.

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