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Economics Wed Mar 03 2010

Northwestern University Community Fights for a Living Wage

The Rally

On Wednesday February 24, despite a chilly 27 degree day, over 400 Northwestern University students rallied outside a meeting of the university's board of trustees to demand a living wage for cafeteria workers at the school. It was a high point in the student anti-sweatshop movement at Northwestern.

Tom Breitsprecher, a lead cook who has worked at the Northwestern University cafeteria for 31 years, said that this was the largest demonstration he has seen on campus since an anti-war rally in the early 1980's.

According to Northwestern University activist Matthew Fischler, the average cafeteria worker at Northwestern makes a measly eight to nine dollars an hour. This poverty is compounded with the fact that the health insurance offered by Sodexho still includes expensive co-pays and premiums that many employees can not afford. It becomes especially difficult for many workers who lose their health benefits when their hours are cut during winter, spring and summer breaks.

According to Breitsprecher, "Many workers on campus live in government subsidized housing. Even if they are offered a discounted health insurance plan, many can't afford the premiums. Many qualify for food stamps for their families... if the government subsidizes workers, aren't they really subsidizing a company that pays such low wages?"

The Northwestern Living Wage Campaign is seeking to raise the wages of cafeteria workers to $13.23 an hour plus full medical benefits. This is the wage that the Heartland Alliance has determined is the minimum needed to have a wage that sustains the basic needs of a family.

According to Fischler, the living wage campaign hope to pressure the university to adopt a code of conduct which sets the terms of agreements for contractors, "if you are going to work for Northwestern you have to pay your workers a living wage." The students also hope to pressure the university to give cafeteria workers benefits that university employees enjoy such as access to the library, and community events.

Alan Cubbage the Vice President for University Relations for Northwestern said that it's a good thing that students are involved in and care about this issue, however the university was taking a neutral role, claiming that their only responsibility was to contract out the services the students require. The universities official position was that the issue of wages was one between the workers unions and food catering company Sodexho.

History professor Nancy MacLean said, "right now our vice president for business and finance says that Northwestern can't do this. Says that we can't afford it. I speak as a former administrator and former chair of the history dept, I'm gonna tell you a secret, administrators always say this at first. They say this when they don't understand what a priority something is. When they [the board of trustees] look out the windows they will see what a priority this is." Maclean pointed out that Northwestern had a large endowment of more than six billion dollars.

It was a point that Lou Weeks, the organizing director of HERE local 1 expanded upon. Weeks discussed the 1984-1985 strike of clerical workers at Yale University, and how three months later they doubled their wages. "I imagine that you all will be told that you are going to have to make some choices and that if you choose to organize for a living wage then you are choosing to raise your own tuition or your choosing to limit other funding on campus or choosing to make some other false choice."

Tom Breitsprecher explained, "I want to emphasize that we the workers on campus are a part of Northwestern. ...they pay Sodexho millions of dollars... the university asks the food service to put on special events to enliven the campus experience. The university even provided the food service with a special menu to celebrate Black History Month. So the administration would be disingenuous to suggest that they would not be interested in something as unimportant as food service... Even though food service, housekeeping and other personnel are not on the university payroll, the university knows that we are essential to building a sense of community that will endear you to your alma mater long after you graduate."

Cafeteria employee Rafael Marquez told the crowd, "The university is not these buildings it's you all." Nancy MacLean rallied the crowd by telling them, "I teach history, you are making history."

The Student Movement

The Living Wage Campaign is only the latest in a series of pro-labor campaigns at Northwestern. Students had previously pressured the university to become a member of the Workers Rights Consortium. The WRC was formed by United Students Against Sweatshops to be an independent monitor of sweatshops that manufacture university apparel. The WRC has expanded its scope to monitor university contracts as well.

However, according to Matthew Fischler, Northwestern has not signed onto the WRC's Designated Supplier Program. The Designated Supplier Program essentially gives the WRC teeth and has universities divest from companies that do not meet the WRC's labor standards. Northwestern is different from other Chicago area schools in that it does not have a committee which advises its president and board of trustees on labor issues, ethical contracting issues, or fair business practices.

This has not stopped student activists from organizing for justice. The students began organizing in the fall of 2009, meeting with workers and making sure that all of their unions were on board with the campaign. Then in November, the students collected 800 signatures on a petition which they presented to President of Northwestern Morton Shapiro. Shapiro has been gracious and diplomatic in meeting with students about the issue, but has not yet ceded serious ground on the issues.

Tom Breitsprecher told me what the students were going up against. "The university is going to try to string them out and play the waiting game and see who is going to graduate and if the sentiment will stick around. I think this [rally] is a good start."

The living wage campaign plans on continuing this struggle and had a meeting planned with President Shapiro to discuss community benefits for workers.

The Unions

The subcontracted workers at Northwestern are represented by three different unions. The janitorial staff are members of Service Employees International Union Local 1, the student center cafeteria workers are represented by UNITE/HERE! and the dorm cafeteria's are represented by Service Workers United. The student center cafe has been union for 20 some years while the dorm cafeteria workers have only been represented by SWU for a few years.

This is an interesting group of unions to all be signed onto the same campaign.

UNITE/HERE was formed in 2004 as a merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. It seemed to be the perfect marriage. UNITE had money but faced the outsourcing of its members jobs. HERE had been expanding its membership and needed resources to continue to do so.

The newly combined UNITE/HERE formed a partnership with SEIU to organize food service workers, and formed Service Workers United, a joint local that had a national scale, representing workers from coast to coast. However, the leadership of SEIU came to run SWU national. Contracts for different bargaining units are sub-contracted out to SEIU and UNITE/HERE locals to be serviced.

This began to unravel though as the former leaders of UNITE attempted to leave the combined UNITE/HERE and formed a close alliance with SEIU. This has led to a major conflict between HERE and SEIU.

Two different visions of union organizing are at stake in this battle. HERE placed its emphasis on leadership building, which takes time, but builds a cadre of rank and file organizers who should be able to withstand the pressures of an organizing campaign. SEIU has placed more emphases on increasing the density of union members quickly, often, according to critics, at the cost of agreeing to poor contracts that do little to protect workers.

That all these competing unions have agreed to support the Living Wage Campaign should be considered a testament to the importance of a living wage.

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