Living Wage Redux

A Town Hall meeting was held in Old Union on Wednesday, April 28.  The topic of this meeting was a familiar one:  the Living Wage Campaign (LWC), a movement that is, once again, gaining prominence on the Farm.

A recently distributed Living Wage Campaign brochure characterized its effort as “an on-going struggle for Stanford students and workers.” And with a brief look at the campaign’s history, there can be little doubt of the validity of such a characterization.

In January of 2001, roughly 200 janitors and students marched in support of the janitors’ demands for higher wages. They chanted, carried signs and distributed pamphlets along the way.

In May of 2002, nearly 50 students camped out for two nights in Main Quad in front of President Hennessey’s office. Their rally was meant to support an increase in the wages and benefits of Bon Appetit employees.

Following a one-day work stoppage in winter of 2006, a few dozen students joined in a student-worker solidarity rally. They proceeded to march through campus, en route to President Hennessey’s Building 10 office, where they met with a larger protest.

In January 2007, seven students protested the University’s living wage policy by performing a skit in President Hennessey’s office. And later that same year, in perhaps the most extreme demonstration, eight students took part in a hunger strike. The students’ fast ended after nine days as an agreement was reached with the University.

Today brings us the 2010 installment of the Living Wage Campaign. In addition to the Town Hall meeting, the campaign has been raising awareness and momentum for their cause by hosting weekly meetings at Old Union. Students have also been encouraged to sign the Living Wage Campaign’s petition and to hang brightly colored signs on their doors, proclaiming “I support Worker’s Rights” and “Housing. Clothing. Food.”

There is a “Stanford Living Wage Campaign” Facebook group, which – at the time of this publication – had 70 members. There is also an accompanying YouTube video that has been traveling through various e-mail lists. In the video, multiple students read the letter that the campaign sent to President Hennessey, asking for a reconsideration of the University’s Living wage Policy.

The Living Wage

Not to be confused with the minimum wage, the living wage is distinctive in that it takes into account the cost of living in a specific area.  Specifically, the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center defines the living wage as wage “that allows a worker to provide food, housing, health care, child care, and basic transportation for themselves and their families.”

As it now stands, Stanford does qualify as providing a living wage. Effective Sept. 1 of this year, the minimum living hourly wage rate for workers with benefits will be $11.88, while workers without benefits will receive $13.49, an increase from the $11.70 and $13.37, respectively.

The problem, however, suggested by the LWC, is that not all workers are covered under such a policy. For example, the LWC asserts that unionized workers and those workers at the hospital, the bookstore, or other campus restaurants not directly affiliated with the University are not guaranteed to receive Stanford’s living wage.

“A Living Wage policy doesn’t mean that some people make a living wage—it should mean that all people make a living wage, or else, what’s the point?” commented Dan Weissman, a grad student and member of the LWC.

Moreover, the Living Wage Campaign is asking for more transparency in the University’s calculation of such wage numbers.

“Stanford hasn’t revealed how they came up with that number [the $11.88 minimum living hourly wage rate],” commented Shara Esbenshade ’12, a member of both the LWC and the Stanford Labor Action Coalition (SLAC).

However, the concept of a living wage is not without its skeptics.  In an interview with the Review, Thomas E. MaCurdy, professor of economics at Stanford, suggested that the key issue to understand about the living wage proposal is that it is not without costs.

“If Stanford goes for the [living wage policy], they have less to spend on some other program. That’s really the issue…It’s literally another form of spending,” said MaCurdy, who specializes in government income support programs and labor economics.

Furthermore, MaCurdy also finds fault in the methodology that provides the basis for calculating the living wage. Whereas the living wage calculations assume a particular caricature of the worker as being an individual who earns all or most of the income for a family and has children, MaCurdy holds this is simply not an accurate assumption:  “Most of these workers aren’t in the circumstances these guys [who calculate the living wage] pretend that [the workers] were when the calculations are made.”

Likewise, MaCurdy also noted that the living wage calculations do not account for benefits a low-wage worker would be eligible for, including government subsidies in the form of EIPC, food stamps and housing programs.

“Even if [workers] were to earn the lower amount, that’s not what they earn because, in fact, the government subsidizes them in a whole bunch of different ways,” he said.

Looking Ahead

At the Town Hall meeting, the Living Wage Campaign’s panel hinted that their effort would more than likely carry over to the next school year. In terms of upcoming events, there are no hunger strikes scheduled for the near future. Nevertheless, one audience member strongly declared, “We’ll go there if [the University] pushes us.”

As for the overarching goals of the Living Wage campaign, Victoria Yee, ’13 summed it up simply: “closing the loopholes,” in reference to the aforementioned workers who are exempt from the University’s living wage policy for various reasons.

Esbenshade also added, “we have to make the whole system more transparent, and we have to actually have enforcement [for the contractors that violate the living wage policy].”

Considering the history of Stanford’s Living Wage Campaign, it is tough to discern if this effort is merely another episode in an ongoing saga or if it will bring definitive closure to the issue.

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