I Was a Student Worker Fighting for a $15 Wage. Now, I’m Facing a Criminal Record.

Ina Padua

Demanding a living wage should not be a criminal offense.

On Mon­day, Feb­ru­ary 4, I will have my day in court in New Brunswick, New Jer­sey. That’s not where I’d like to be spend­ing my morn­ing. I’d rather be at my office in DC work­ing on get­ting back-pay for fed­er­al con­tract work­ers. But on Mon­day, 11 of my for­mer class­mates and I will march into the court­room with our lawyer and defend our­selves against the charges brought upon us by our alma mater — Rut­gers University.

On Decem­ber 12, 2017, dozens of stu­dents, work­ers, and activists of Unit­ed Stu­dents Against Sweat­shops (USAS) staged a peace­ful protest ask­ing the Board of Trustees to give cam­pus work­ers like me $15 an hour and a union con­tract. I was a din­ing ser­vice work­er and, along with oth­er col­leagues, had been ask­ing for a raise for two years. Books, hous­ing and trans­porta­tion all add up, and it’s almost impos­si­ble to live on the pover­ty wages that Rut­gers pays its din­ing work­ers. The admin­is­tra­tion agreed to raise the min­i­mum wage from $8.44 to $11 an hour in 2018, but that’s still not a liv­ing wage. The Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute cal­cu­lates that a sin­gle per­son liv­ing in Mid­dle­sex Coun­ty, New Jer­sey needs to make over $42,000 to afford to live there. There’s no way that stu­dents like me work­ing part-time in the din­ing hall, while attend­ing class full-time, could gen­er­ate that kind of income with­out tak­ing out more stu­dent loans.

I wasn’t ner­vous the day we inter­rupt­ed the board meet­ing, because I knew I was doing the right thing for myself and hun­dreds of work­ers like me. How­ev­er, the admin­is­tra­tion did not see it that way. Twelve of us were arrest­ed that day and each giv­en three dis­or­der­ly per­sons” charges that could lead to six months in jail or an over­whelm­ing amount of fines. Though we hoped that these charges would be dropped, the police and the admin­is­tra­tion have proved unwill­ing to coop­er­ate and insist on penal­iz­ing us for exer­cis­ing our voices.

While I was for­tu­nate to get hired after grad­u­a­tion at DC Jobs with Jus­tice, a union­ized work­place that treats its work­ers fair­ly, I am wor­ried about the future. Being a non-bina­ry mixed per­son of col­or, I already strug­gle to maneu­ver sys­tems that were nev­er cre­at­ed to pro­tect or sup­port me. I am fear­ful that these charges will hang over my head and dam­age my future career path. Recent grad­u­ates face enough dif­fi­cul­ty try­ing to find employ­ment and pay off their large stu­dent debt. Imag­ine doing it with a crim­i­nal record and try­ing to find the mon­ey to pay for legal fees.

Thanks to years of ded­i­cat­ed activism, the New Jer­sey leg­is­la­ture recent­ly passed a bill to increase the state’s min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, which will force Rut­gers to pay at least that amount. That will help cam­pus work­ers keep up with the cost of liv­ing, but it’s still not enough to keep up with the ris­ing cost of education.

I hope that the judge sees that my co-defen­dants and I were sim­ply try­ing to secure a bet­ter stan­dard of liv­ing for our­selves and be able to ful­ly enjoy the ben­e­fits of our edu­ca­tion, with­out strug­gling to make ends meet. If Rut­gers tru­ly cared about the stu­dent life at their uni­ver­si­ty, they would treat us fair­ly, not throw the book at us.

Ina Pad­ua is an orga­niz­er at DC Jobs with Jus­tice and a mem­ber of the Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union. They are a proud USAS alum.
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