Northwestern Students Challenge University With Living Wage Campaign

Chenault Taylor

Northwestern University students protest on the school's campus in Evanston, Ill., on Wednesday, February 24.

Last Wednesday, Northwestern University’s main thoroughfare echoed with this chant: Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Unfair wages got to go!”

Armed with handmade signs and plenty of moxie, more than 400 students, faculty and campus workers marched to the University president’s office. The February 24 rally, organized by the Northwestern Living Wage Campaign and supported by campus groups like Alianza and Hillel, demanded just wages for all campus employees. The turnout challenged the commonly held idea that Northwestern is a politically apathetic, disengaged campus.

In December, after interviewing the campaign’s co-chairs, I signed on as a faculty organizer. As a Northwestern senior, I had yet to find an on-campus group I felt passionate about. Growing up in a labor family, I’ve seen how important and how hard the fight for workers’ rights is.

Students across campus clearly agree. With more than 1,300 petition signatures and 60 trained organizers, this push for fair wages for all of the university’s workers has reached heights I’ve never before seen on campus. Students, workers and faculty spoke at the rally, highlighting campus unity on the issue. Rafael Marquez, a lead chef at a residential dining hall, told the crowd: A fair living wage is not a privilege, but a necessity.” (See videos below.) 

The campaign defines a living wage as an hourly wage standard that takes into account the local cost of housing, health care and other expenses necessary to support a family.” Based on the Illinois Self-Sufficiency Standard, produced by the Heartland Alliance, this amounts to $13.23/hour wage accompanied by healthcare benefits and indexed annually to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which gauges inflation.

After Wednesday’s rally, the administration released its own fact sheet (PDF link), in response to the campaign’s. The university fact sheet argues that less than 1 percent of employees make below a living wage, but implementing a living wage for all workers would cost the university $3.3-4 million dollars annually, with students likely bearing these costs. These statistics don’t match up, and the university has been slow to provide the campaign with budgetary specifics. From talks with workers, their unions and knowledgeable faculty, it’s clear that a change in policy is essential for many workers, and that Northwestern can afford the cost.

On Friday in the Daily Northwestern, new NU President Morton Schapiro discussed the campaign in a head-to-head format with campaign coordinator Matthew Fischler. Schapiro has often talked about his commitment to social justice, and the need for students to hold the university accountable to high standards. To make these ideals a reality for every member of the Northwestern community, we as students know we have to take the lead.

In the next few weeks, the campaign plans to build capacity while continuing talks with the administration. Organizing efforts aren’t focusing solely on students; we’ll reach out to all members of the Northwestern community. I’ll continue working with faculty, visiting office hours and presenting our case to the Faculty Senate. None of this work is easy, but in a few short months we’ve already seen the basics of organizing make a big impact on campus.

I’m particularly pleased to note that campaign organizers have successfully garnered the support of NU students using the organizing methods of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Three members of the campaign’s executive board, myself included, withdrew from Northwestern to work as field organizers for Barack Obama in the fall of 2008. The phonebanking techniques, rally chants and campaign structure we experienced then have all been employed for this campaign.

It’s easy for university administrations to write off student activists as idealists without practical solutions. But the students I’ve worked with during the last few months are proving this stereotype wrong, focusing on tangible solutions to the very real problems present at Northwestern.

We aren’t naïve, and we aren’t going away anytime soon.

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Chenault Taylor, a former In These Times web intern, is a student at Northwestern University.
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