Living Wages and College Campuses

Until public officials, administrators, faculty members, students and the general public are sufficiently aroused to demand major changes it is unlikely that we will see a major transformation in the way our colleges are run.
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According to the Economic Policy Institute, there are 737,000 employees at American universities and colleges -- gardeners, security guards, cleaning crews, janitors, food service personnel, etc. -- who do not earn a living wage, a barebones amount sufficient to provide a minimally decent standard of living for their families. Probably another 200,000 earn a little more but not enough to provide any sort of job security for their families. Their working conditions are a disgrace to our system of higher education and a sad reflection of the moral leadership of our college institutions.

For a wage earner with a family of four to meet the poverty line of approximately $24,000 a year, he or she would have to receive over $11.50 an hour, seven hours a day, five days a week for all 52 weeks of the year. Such an income would normally not include health benefits, sick leave or vacation pay. It would provide for few amenities that make up a decent life, not to mention the capacity to meet health crises and unforeseeable family problems

Very few low-wage workers on American campuses even earn a poverty-level income, let alone receive health benefits. Many are employed only nine or ten months a year and are often barred from received unemployment benefits during the few summer months they are unemployed. (IRS notice, September 27,2010, "Reducing Unemployment costs for Educational Institutions.") Yet their work is an essential ingredient of college life; without them campuses couldn't function.

Why are they so poorly valued and treated? Why, like our adjunct faculty members, have they become the "untouchables" of our higher education caste system? The answer is complex.

It is in part the result of our growing class divide in which blue collar and low level service workers are granted little or no respect and treated accordingly. The fact that so many of these workers are members of minority groups taps into lingering negative attitudes about immigrant workers and people of color. Moreover, many universities and colleges have become big businesses, reflecting corporate values: management efficiency, top-down decision-making, a huge divide between top salaries and those of the lowest paid workers, and trustees who care little about academic matters but a great deal about finances and fundraising.

Like corporate executives who want to cut budgets and maximize profits, college administrators claim there is no money in their budgets to raise the wages of their low income employees, yet they find plenty of money for athletics and coaches, new buildings and additional, highly paid administrators.

Over the past two decades campus student groups and their faculty supporters have pressured college administrations to increase the pay of low wage employees and, in some cases, to unionize these workers. They have conducted living wage campaigns throughout the country, but, for the most part, their efforts have failed to produce more than a few victories. The opposition of college and university administrations in general has been surprisingly fierce, often led by chancellors and presidents with a reputation for liberal perspectives and moderate views.

In recent years, one of the few student success stories occurred at Georgetown University, where after three years of effort, an undergraduate-led living wage coalition won a remarkable victory over a recalcitrant university administration. Ironically, the University's Center for Social Justice ignored its Jesuit mission of social and economic justice by vocally opposing the student's demands. Only about fifty faculty members had the courage to sign a letter of support on behalf of the campaign, a reflection of the cowardice of many tenured professors facing controversial issues.

After nine days of a hunger strike by approximately 30 students, during which one of the students had to be hospitalized, the Administration capitulated, agreeing to a minimum wage of $14 an hour, including health benefits, as well as an annual cost-of-living adjustment and the right to freely associate and organize. (Just Employment Policy for Georgetown University, issued by the Office of Public Affairs)

Spurred by their victory and some foundation money, four of the graduating coalition leaders spent their next two years barnstorming the country to convince other universities and colleges to introduce a living wage for their low income employees. With a couple of exceptions, they were unsuccessful. They found most of the student campus organizations unresponsive and the college administrations, from the CEO's to the deans and administrators, adamantly opposed.

In a relatively few institutions, student and union campaigns have forced colleges to change their positions, increase wages and benefits and engage in dialogues with workers and students.

At both Harvard and the University of Miami, pressure from students and unions prompted both universities to increase the wages of both their direct and contract employees, yet the negotiations were protracted and painful. A decent living wage is not yet in place at both institutions.

The living wage campaign at the University of Virginia is probably the oldest, continuing student attempt to raise workers' wages on any campus in the country. For 15 years, with significant faculty support, they have battled an entrenched administration that until recently refused to budge on the issue. Their goal is to obtain an hourly wage of $13 an hour without health benefits for both direct employees of the university and for contract workers. Currently direct UVA employees receive $10.65 an hour plus health benefits, but contract workers mostly receive substantially less.

The Administration has cited the opinion of the former Attorney General, now the Governor of Virginia, that it is illegal for the university to force private contractors to pay a living wage as the rationale for not increasing the wages of a large number of its employees. Many legal experts, including some at the law school, claim this opinion is without merit and non-binding. Still, the university stubbornly resists any increases for contract workers.

What is ironic about the administration's position is that the UVA president, Teresa Sullivan, who recently was fired and rehired by an irresponsible board of trustees, wrote a textbook on work and labor conditions that called for a living wage for workers: "Being paid a living wage for one's work is a necessary condition for self-actualization." Yet she refuses to implement what she has publicly advocated.

The treatment of low-wage workers at our universities and colleges is an issue that flies below the public radar, is ignored by public policy officials and college trustees and dismissed by college administrators as little more than a nuisance. The insouciance and apathy of faculty members throughout academia have permitted college administrators to avoid taking any action to remedy these inequities. Professional associations like the American Association of University Professors seem to have ignored the matter.

Foundations have paid no attention to the low wage problem on university and college campuses. A couple of Washington-based foundations supported the living wage coalition at Georgetown, especially its efforts to broaden organizing activities to other campuses. Only a handful of foundations have supported the New Faculty Majority, a new national association that is trying to improve the working conditions of contingent, mostly part-time, faculty. A few unions appear to be financially supportive of both low-wage workers and adjunct faculty members.

University and college CEO's and administrators are the primary culprits in denying living wages to campus low wage employees. They claim that in a time of fiscal austerity their institutions don't have the money to grant additional funds to their blue collar staff. Yet the cost of providing such increases are a tiny percent of their institutions' budgets. For example, Georgetown's cost of providing a living wage to their approximately 500 campus workers amounted to only a little over $2 million a year. Georgetown's annual budget in 2010 was a little over $900 million.

Last year some 33 university CEO's received over $1 million in salaries, while provosts and other high level administrators also received more than ample compensation packages. Though funds targeted to classroom teaching have declined, the number of school administrative staff have escalated sharply. The University of Akron, which pays minimal wages to adjunct faculty, now employs at least 42 vice-presidents. One might ask, "to do what?"

Campuses that are pleading poverty are still spending vast amounts of money on new buildings and construction projects, CEO slush funds, high-priced administrators, campus speaker fees and athletic departments where many football and basketball coaches earn well over $1-2 million. Hundreds of these institutions have large endowments. Some 1500 private foundations, with aggregate assets of over $300 billion, that support public universities and colleges are not using their funds to support either students or low wage campus workers. There is plenty of money available at many universities and colleges; administrators are just not making either their blue-collar staff or adjunct faculty a priority.

Public officials responsible for overseeing state universities and colleges are clearly not doing their job in ensuring decent working conditions at their institutions. Trustees of private universities and colleges seem to have washed their hands from their obligation to monitor and, where necessary, change the policies and practices of their schools for which they are ultimately responsible.

The democratic values of our higher education system have been turned upside down. Equity, fair play and justice have given way to bureaucratic greed and unprincipled practices. The system has become increasingly dysfunctional; its poorest elements -- the low wage workers and adjunct teachers who now comprise almost 75 percent of all higher education faculty -- are given short shrift, while top administrators reap the benefits. But the real losers are the students and their parents.

Can these campus conditions change? Increased student activism could successfully pressure college administrations to improve the working conditions of their low-wage workers. But until public officials, administrators, faculty members, students and the general public are sufficiently aroused to demand major changes it is unlikely that we will see a major transformation in the way our colleges are run.

*This article is an expansion of an opinion piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education. (September 17, 2012)

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior Fellow at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute and a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy