This year, the Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP)—a cohort of student-activists concerned with labor justice on Swarthmore’s campus—is busy strengthening their team and working out ways to push for improved wages and benefits.
From poster-holding and picture-taking opportunities to small group discussions on labor justice, SLAP is working to raise what they see as a critical question for Swarthmore’s community to answer: What is an appropriate wage for Swarthmore’s lowest-paid workers?
A living wage covers the cost of living—including food, housing, health-care, transportation—and, for each worker, the number is different. Because prices change over time, the overall numbers also change each year. For this and other reasons, SLAP said it was not interested in pinning any specific wage targets to its campaign, but its members say that current wages are too low.
“Swarthmore’s image and the image they like to portray aligns with our goals,” said SLAP Member Emma Waitzman ‘14. “But where students have a lot of power is to talk about whether Swarthmore is living up to this image of having a social conscience and building a community.”
“Hopefully this dedication to social justice comes from every place in the College,” said member Ben Wolcott ‘14. He believes that the community has a shared responsibility to work towards social justice. “It comes from the things we study, it comes from the students who choose to come here, and hopefully it comes from the staff. Everyone from workers in Sharples to the President’s senior staff […] It’s about making good on that commitment.”
History Professor Marge Murphy, who specializes in labor history, likens SLAP to the “conscience” of the College.
Various activist group at Swarthmore have pushed for higher wages for years. For example, a campaign similar to SLAP’s helped pressure Swarthmore’s previous president, Al Bloom, to agree to a wage hike in 2005.
Staff Wages as a Community Concern
Vice-President for Human Resources Pamela Prescod-Caesar said by email that the College is currently in the midst of reviewing the living wage agreement made in 2005, after a student group, the Living Wage and Democracy Campaign (SLW&DC), held a series of community events promoting labor justice. Prescod-Caesar was unable to give further details.
Psychology Professor Barry Schwartz, who was heavily involved in the committee negotiations that led to the 2005 agreement, said that there is room to improve conditions for the lowest-paid workers, but that such an improvement is far more likely if students and faculty show that they are willing to make small sacrifices on their ends of the budget.
A commitment to greatly increased wages or benefits means a reallocation of endowment funding from elsewhere in the school’s budget, Murphy said.
“A huge amount of resources are spent on making Swarthmore an amazing experience,” said Al Bradbury ‘05, an activist involved with SLW&DC, which worked alongside Schwartz and other faculty in the early 2000s.
“One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that [Swarthmore] is also a workplace,” Bradbury said. “I don’t want my education coming out of the paycheck of working-class people. That is too high a price to pay.”
Slapping the Invisible Hand
A perfectly free marketplace—Adam Smith’s invisible hand, responding to the forces of supply and demand—would in all likelihood set wages for the workers lower than they are today.
Existing minimum wage regulations have served as hedges against such bottom-scraping wages. A living wage raises the floor even higher. It makes the baseline wage equal to what a basic standard of living requires.
Instituting a living wage is a way of fighting back against the invisible hand, which SLAP doesn’t trust to deliver decent wages. “I don’t think that people deserve the wages that markets dictate,” Wolcott said.
Their current campaign draws connections between the welfare of the lowest-paid workers and the College as a whole. “I think it’s about workers’ rights, it’s about human rights, it’s about building an equal community,” Waitzman said.
But the campaign won’t stop with wages. “It’s about so many things,” said Wolcott. “It’s about healthcare, it’s about childcare, it’s about respect on the job. It has always been broader than just a living wage.”
After finishing a fact-finding and research agenda last semester, aimed at better understanding the needs and conditions of workers on campus, SLAP arranged a list of seven demands that they’re calling “asks.”
Among the asks are subsidized hospital visits, subsidized child care, and subsidized insurance co-pays, as well as a streamlining of the process by which workers file grievances against their bosses.
A Campaign with a Long History
While SLAP is a relatively young organization, the demands that SLAP outlined have a history at Swarthmore, dating back at least to the early 1990s.
One campaign, the first to successfully pressure the administration into adopting a living wage, first appeared on campus in fall 2000 and was led by the student group Conscious Consumers. The group undertook a lengthy investigation of the conditions of low-paid College workers before launching the Swarthmore Living Wage and Democracy Campaign (SLW&DC) with a small group of staff. Kae Kalwaic, an administrative assistant in the Educational Studies Department, was involved in the campaign and documented it in her blog.
A petition SLW&DC presented that spring to then-President Bloom received a lukewarm reception. Soon after, Bloom’s new director of Human Resources formed a committee to review staff compensation that SLW&DC advocates claimed was undemocratic.
Over the following year, students repeatedly petitioned members of the Board of Managers. Once, they went so far as to interrupt a Board dinner with an unplanned dessert: mints with pro-campaign postcards attached, according to an article about the campaign on the Global Nonviolent Action Database, which is produced and curated in large part by Swarthmore students and faculty.
According to the Database, SLW&DC held a rally attended by over 200 people from the Swarthmore community. At the 2002 commencement, they handed Bloom bread and roses, two symbols that have been associated with American labor movements for a century.
In May 2002, students’ efforts bore fruit when faculty voted to support a living wage and Bloom responded by creating an Ad Hoc Committee to determine what that wage would be.
Two years of meetings and discussion ensued. The issues were nuanced and complex beyond anything the participants had been expecting, said Schwartz, the committee’s appointed chair.
To account for workers’ widely varied household structures and living conditions, Swarthmore would have had to ask for a great deal of private information in order to set wage levels. Few were willing to abandon the principle that equal work requires equal pay.
To approach an appropriate wage for the lowest-paid workers, the committee used three different categories of minimum wages based on what Women’s Association for Women’s Alternatives, a Delaware County non-profit cited in SLW&DC’s proposal, determined to be the bare bones cost of living in Delaware County. It suggested that a single employee earn $10.74/hr, an employee with one child $13.89/hr, and an employee with two children $15.15/hr.
The selection of one standard base-pay had the committee wrestling for hours, and they never reached consensus.
There was another catch: a raise for the lowest-paid workers necessitated raises for everyone else on the pay hierarchy. Schwartz called this a “trickle-up effect.”
Changing the lowest wages “would have had ramifications all the way up the scale,” Schwartz said. “If you tried to honor the ramifications, all of a sudden it costs a bloody fortune.”
The concern is over income inequality, which is referred to as “compression.” Equal wages within an organization may sound appealing in principle, but in a hierarchy, where hard work and skill acquisition is rewarded with promotion, Schwartz said, human psychology lends itself to a wage ladder.
Murphy echoed this paradox. “You can’t just raise the lowest worker’s wage,” she said. “You have people who are highly skilled here who are making maybe fifty cents more than these guys. For a secretary to come in with all the skills that a secretary needs and only pay them eleven dollars an hour? That’s a problem. So you’re not just talking about a living wage […] unless you’re going to talk about compression.”
In dealing with its workers, Swarthmore considers itself an employer, first and foremost, and in that context, compression is to be avoided. Swarthmore’s labor relations may shift over time (Schwartz alluded to a drive towards professionalization in the 1980s, for example), but its basic status as an employer remains the same.
Ultimately, the committee recommended setting a minimum wage at $13.89/hour, far above federal minimum wage then or now.
While the administration accepted other aspects of the committee’s proposal, they contested this number. In 2005, the committee dropped their recommendation to a minimum wage of $10.74/hr, a number acceptable to both Human Resources and the Board of Managers, according to Schwartz.
That means that in a nation whose federal minimum wage was $5.15/hr in 2005, any entry-level employee at Swarthmore was making at least $10.74/hr.
“It ended up a compromise,” said Schwartz. “It was a proud moment, even though I didn’t quite get what I wanted,” said Schwartz.
Bradbury said that SLW&DC members were disappointed. “We crafted the ideal document about what it would take,” said Bradbury. “But what it really takes [is] political pressure. We tried to apply that, but not all these things did happen.”
Wages Take a Backseat
After 2005’s coda, the momentum behind the living wage campaign slowed for a few years. “It’s hard for students to have a sense of continuity from one project to another,” said Murphy. “Plus, this is a very fragile community in the sense that it’s so small. It doesn’t have that kind of institutional memory that a Yale or a Harvard has.”
In the past couple of years, the College’s commitment to periodically review wages has fallen through as well, and the benefits bank has been frozen, according to Murphy. Today the minimum wage for staff on campus is $11.67/hr–increased from 2005–but it is not altogether clear whether that rate would be higher today if the 2005 agreement had been followed to the letter. The College has the Great Recession to blame for some of this lapse.
“If you look at investments generally, investors aren’t investing. That’s true all over,” Murphy said. Swarthmore’s endowment may have weathered the last few years better than many other colleges, but the College’s budget still took a hit.
“[Wage increases] are something we should address as the economy gets better,” Murphy said. “But then the question is, has the economy gotten better? They’ve stopped cutting, they’ve maybe started hiring where they hadn’t been hiring before, but they haven’t been giving out huge wage increases to anyone.”
“Every time the Board meets, they don’t sit around and say, ‘Oh my goodness, we should raise the annual wages so they’re higher than everybody in Delaware County,’” said Murphy. “No, they say, ‘Gee, our students are struggling with paying tuition. How can we increase that funding?’”
Bradbury suggested that the College increase its annual budget. “We argued actively that the Board of Managers is extremely conservative in terms of percent of endowment spent,” said Bradbury.
A Philosophical Shift
Schwartz believes that advocates have to recognize the genuine philosophical difference between themselves and the College.
The tension between Swarthmore the employer and Swarthmore the ethical community is very real, he said, and for change to happen, the College would have to open a conversation on its proper role with respect to its workers.
“As the discussion unfolded [in 2005], and I saw the genuine complexities, I relished to have this conversation,” Schwartz said, though he said he knew it was not going to happen. “It was a dead letter,” he said.
For the College to undergo such a philosophical change would require a larger community consensus, said Schwartz, and the issue of a wage increase was far too immediate and achievable to risk burning political bridges.
Waitzman is less cautious. “My ideal vision does include much more of a revolution,” she said. “I think social justice is on the back-burner at Swarthmore,” she said. “A revolution for me would look like the College stepping up [and going] outside the norm for what a socially conscious College is, and really taking that to the next level.”
“In terms of our asks, those are small peanuts in a lot of ways. But we have to meet the College where they’re at, and that means asking for what I think is a small thing but for the College is a big thing,” Waitzman said.
To move forward, the Swarthmore community may need to have Schwartz’s conversation. Swarthmore has made a commitment in the past to pay above-market wages, but how far does the community believe it should go to achieve what SLAP calls “social justice” for its lowest-paid workers?
Such a dialogue may happen someday if SLAP keeps at it. At one event in September, SLAP encouraged over a hundred students to pose for photographs outside of Sharples with signs supporting workers’ rights, but the group has not held a major campus event since.
With several active SLAP members close to graduating, SLAP is also putting time into strengthening group membership.
“It takes years,” said Wolcott. “That’s why the first living wage campaign took five years. It doesn’t happen in a night. It doesn’t happen in a semester.”