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Worker-Student Alliances

Putting Workers First: How a Living Wage Campaign can Support Workers' Organizing (and Why it Should)

It is easy for a Living Wage campaign to be very student- and administration-centered. As students we have an immense amount of power and leverage that campus workers (especially those without a union) do not. We know that our administrators have to listen to us because we pay tuition and have numerous options for action if they do not. A group of workers who are not in a union or are not directly employed by the university (because they are contracted out) does not have the power we have. They risk, among other things, disciplinary action, job loss, and possibly negatively affected immigration status if they speak out. The goal of a Living Wage campaign should not be to fight on behalf of the workers’ on your campus; it should be to empower the workers’ so that they can fight for themselves and build power and leverage that they can use for future gains long after your four (or more) years as a student are up.

The best way for workers to make their voices heard is through a union and a collective bargaining process. As students though we are not union organizers and do not always have control over the organizing process. Getting unions involved in a Living Wage campaign is important because a union can provide legal and logistical support. A union can threaten an employer with unfair labor practice charges if they unfairly discipline or fire a worker. Once a union campaign has started workers involved are protected by the National Labor Relations Act and cannot be fired, disciplined, or threatened for participating in organizing. This, of course, does not prevent these things from happening and one or all of these things will occur. Having a union behind you will not prevent these things from occurring but it will help mitigate the affects.

Since you will not be able to control the union organizing process it is important to make workers’ voices heard in other ways during your campaign. While the union is working on organizing for collective bargaining purposes, you need to be organizing to force your university to accept the right to organize as well as to guarantee minimum wages and benefits, which is what the Living Wage is all about. You are forcing your administration to set minimum standards while empowering workers to demand what they deserve and want through collective bargaining. You are forcing your administration to listen to you but you need to be sure that you are telling them to listen to the workers whose lives are affected by the decisions made.

So how do you make workers’ voices heard in your campaign? First you have to get workers involved from the beginning. Your campaign should come from students and workers together. Begin with research. Find out where people work and what their shifts are. Try to start in easier to access places where you may be able to chat with workers without arousing suspicion from supervisors. If there is a union on your campus find out if they have meetings and see if you can attend, not to present your plan, but to hear what their concerns are. At Georgetown we began talking to the cleaning staff at night in the library, but you could talk to the people cleaning your dorm, cutting the grass, wiping the chalk boards, or serving you food. It is important to begin by simply developing relationships of trust with the workers. Many of the workers will be older than you and it is important to realize that you are going to have earn their trust and respect. Talk to them about their families and their jobs. Find out what their concerns are and which of their coworkers they trust and respect, what their relationship with their supervisor is. Focus on their concerns. You may have preconceived notions about what people will want to change about their job, and they may surprise you with what their concerns really are. Be sure to focus on what they want and not what you think they want. Ask them if they have ever tried to have their concerns with their job addressed and what the response has been. It is important at this stage to begin identifying potential leaders who most of the workers trust and respect. These are the people you will need to actively engage in your campaign and who you can point union organizers toward.

If you do not feel completely comfortable just going up to workers and talking to them, one way to begin to build relationships is by having worker appreciation events. If you invite people to a picnic on Labor Day or May Day or any other day, it will be a way to start. At Georgetown we got our school to pay for weekly worker appreciation breakfasts. We set up for 2 hours every Friday morning with coffee, juice, doughnuts, and other snacks for workers as they were getting on or off their shifts. A table with food is a great place to start a conversation.

Another problem you may face is that many workers may not speak English and many in your group may not speak anything but English. One way to address this communication barrier, while providing something positive for the workers, and building good relationships with them, is to set up an English as a Second Language program with students as teachers. At Georgetown we were able to get school and union funding for our program. You can also set it up as an exchange where you learn the workers’ language while you teach him or her English.

It is important to get all the workers together in meetings. At first we had meetings once a month right after the night shift finished, in a class room we reserved. It is important for the workers to get together because they might not all know each other. It is also important that everyone knows what is going on and helps make decisions and takes part in the campaign. At Georgetown we worked mainly with one small group of workers, contracted janitors, the majority of the maintenance and grounds staff was already in a union. We did not have meetings with food service, security, or book store employees, all of whom were eventually affected by the Living Wage Policy. It would be ideal to meet with and talk to all of these workers, but with limited time, people and resources it is important to decide what is most strategic and useful for your campaign.

What do you do at worker meetings? One important thing is to have food at them; this will draw a larger crowd. It is important to recognize that these meetings are strategy and planning sessions for your campaign. One trap we feel into at Georgetown involved doing things like thanking workers for coming to them and acting like we were doing all the work to help them and they did not really need to do anything. Falling into this trap will quickly lead to your campaign being all about your decisions and your actions with little worker participation. You need to ask the workers what they are going to do to improve the situation. Ask them what they have done in the past to try to bring about change and ask them what they think about different strategies to use their collective power, petitions, letters to school papers, rallies, confronting bosses as a group, etc. When you plan rallies ask who is going to go, who is going to speak, who is going to give rides. Assign tasks and expect follow through just as you do at regular group meetings. This is a fight for these people’s lives, not for yours; both you and they need to understand that. They have to know that if they are not willing to do what it takes to force change, it will never come.

Make sure workers voices are prominent at all your actions. Have workers talk to the press, put articles in campus papers, put their stories around campus. Economic arguments against a Living Wage fall flat in the face of a single mother working three jobs to squeak by. Engaged workers who participate in the struggle are the kind of workers who will continue the struggle after your leave.

The organizing that you do and the involvement of a broad range of workers’ voices will also help build solidarity among workers. Not every worker is going to agree with the campaign and management may even launch or help an anti-union or anti-Living Wage campaign among workers. They will spread rumors about firings, they will say that the contract will be lost and everyone will be out of a job, they will tell the workers that the students are just crazy kids who do not know what they are talking about. It is important to prepare workers for this but also to accept that not every worker is going to support you. The important thing is that a majority of workers feel that they are in a struggle together. Something we were not able to do at Georgetown but which would be very beneficial is to create an environment where directly hired workers and contract workers from different companies are all meeting, rallying, protesting, and fighting together. That kind of campus worker solidarity across contractor and job description will make your administrators have nightmares.

Without this kind of worker empowerment and engagement you may win a policy from your university but that is all it will be. If your university is like most it has policies on all sorts of things that it does not follow through on. You can probably go through your universities web site and find all sorts of flowery statements from administrators that you can use against them because they did not follow through. A Living Wage Policy cannot be that kind of document. Only through empowering workers to speak with a collective voice will your policy have any staying power. It will be a constant struggle to enforce, but if you build a strong base coalition and help workers realize their collective power to make change, you will have made a truly lasting effect at your university and in the lives of the workers on your campus.

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