In 2016, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts was one of the most elite universities in the United States. It had the largest endowment of any university in the country at $35.7 billion. However, despite the wealth of the university, its treatment of its employees, specifically dining services employees, came into question in 2016. Starting in early June 2016, the dining services workers of Harvard began a series of negotiations with the university in order to demand a higher yearly salary.
From 1997 to 2000, students at the University of Virginia held a campaign to raise the living wage from the lowest pay of $6.10 to $8.19. In June 1996, a year before the campaign began, the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity Employment Programs commissioned an investigation, called “The Muddy Floor Report,” that published statistics on racial bias in hiring and pay at UVa’s employment office. The report revealed that housekeeping staff had some of the lowest wages, a third of them qualified for food stamps, and most of them were women and/or African-American.
Lehigh is a university of 5,000 students located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The University provides campus food services, maintenance of facilities and campus grounds through contracts with corporations Sodexho, One Source and Brickman respectively.
On 23 April 2005 an organizer for United Students against Sweatshop, Dawn Liberto, gave a speech at Lehigh, in which she encouraged students to take increased interest in campus workers. Liberto called for a campus living wage, suggesting that students begin with appreciation lunches and then pursue contract previsions.
Students and staff at the College of William and Mary campaign for higher wages for housekeepers 2010-2011
Beginning in 1999 and lasting into 2001, students at William and Mary and members of the Tidewater Labor Support Committee (TSLC) carried out what they called a "Living Wage Campaign," during which they protested and petitioned the school’s administration to raise the salary for housekeepers employed by the college. The campaigners declared victory after the administration conceded to raising wages of the housekeepers to $8.29 per hour, which was far from their original goal, and ceased their campaign in 2001.
From the mid-1990s into the early 2000s a wave of economic justice activism swept through college campuses in the United States, spurred in large part by the global justice movement’s spotlighting of corporate malfeasance in the United States and especially in the global South. Seeking to fight in solidarity with underpaid and unprotected laborers, a number of college campuses launched campaigns demanding their universities end the purchasing of apparel produced in sweatshops. Between 1999 and 2000, 18 campus campaigns used sit-ins and building occupations in pursuit of this goal.
Arizona State University students win better wages and working conditions for food service workers, 2006-2007
In 2006, Arizona State University was one of the larger schools in the United States of America, and employed over 12,000 people. However, many employees at Arizona State University, including the food service workers, made the federal minimum wage of $5.15/hour, well below the “Living Wage” of Tempe calculated to be $10.46.
Since the late 1990’s, students at many different colleges across American had held campaigns to raise the wages of low-income workers. (See this database for other campaigns.)
In 2004, Western Michigan University outsourced its custodial labor to a private company called Commercial Sanitation Management. The contract cut costs for the university by $1.1 million dollars a year and eliminated 58 positions. Commercial Sanitation Management did not pay what the national living wage movement deemed a living wage: $9.50 an hour with health insurance or $10.50 without health insurance.
Undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison founded the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) in 1994 after watching a video in a sociology course about the lockout of 700 workers at A.E. Staley, a sweetener company in Decatur, Illinois. They formed the organization to support the workers’ campaign there, and later spread to university campuses across the country.
In the fall of 1998, Harvard students began a Living Wage Campaign that would last for almost four years. The Campaign was headed by the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) and aimed to help all Harvard employees receive a “living wage”. The demands of the LWC were that each Harvard employee (janitors, security guards, cafeteria workers, etc.) receive a wage of $10 per hour or more. Most workers were receiving the minimum wage at the time, which was around $6.50. In 1998 Cambridge, MA, this was not enough to get by individually, let alone to support a family.
Beginning in late 2005, students at the University of Vermont (UVM) were involved in a movement to increase the wages of school employees such that workers could be given a "living wage." Primarily focused on food-service employees contracted by Sodexho, the nonviolent campaign sought out and acquired support from local officials, faculty, and even state legislators. The students believed they needed in intervene in order to secure a wage that was equal to the state standard of a living wage as established by the state legislature.
In 2006, University of Virginia students launched an intensive campaign to raise minimum wages at their institution. Discontented with the minimum $9.37 an hour, these students urged the school’s administration to provide fairer wages, wages that they determined to start at $10.27 an hour.
Students at University of Notre Dame started a living wage campaign at their school in September 2005 after learning about similar campaigns happening at Harvard University and Georgetown University. A living wage was defined as a family of four being able to live above the poverty line on the working parent’s salary. The Notre Dame students campaigned to raise the minimum pay wage from $8.25 up to $12.10 per hour. The group felt that it was the responsibility of the institution as social Catholics to understand the importance of achieving a living wage for workers.
Swarthmore College is a small liberal arts college close to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the spring semester of 2006 campus workers at Swarthmore began to organize a union. For the union to be established a significant number of the workers had to vote in favor. However, some workers felt that the election method at the college, the standard National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) method, did not support a safe environment for the workers to freely express themselves.
When the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) hired Chancellor Denice Denton in 2004 the transition entailed her earning a salary of $282,000 a year and $600,000 of renovations made on her future house of residence, including a controversial $30,000 dog run. This became a topic of debate; students as well as media critics quickly brought these details to light and demanded accountability for the choices of spending at the University. Under these circumstances, employees at the University began to call attention to the fact that they earned a less than living wage
Students at Washington University of St. Louis formed the Student Worker’s Alliance (SWA) in November 2003 after 36 Nicaraguan campus workers were fired and deported to Nicaragua. SWA aimed to “begin a living wage campaign” for all workers at the university.
A 2002 study found that 68% of the 2,100 hourly Tennessee public higher education employees were being paid less than a living wage of $9.50 per hour with benefits. Earning less than a living wage could force an employee to rely on public subsidies for food, healthcare, or housing. Inspired by this and similar statistics, United Campus Workers (UCW), which recently merged with the Communication Workers Association, launched its “UT Workers Need a Raise” campaign in October 2004, with the goal of a $1,200 across-the-board pay raise for all University of Tennessee employees.
Along with many student activists in United States universities in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the University of Buffalo Students Against Sweatshops (UBSAS) ran a campaign to pressure their university to join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC). After years of student protests and demonstrations, the University of Buffalo (UB) announced that they would join WRC and the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The group of student activists feared that their university’s decision to also join the corporate-sponsored FLA would compromise the efforts and aims of workers’ rights groups.
In 1999, Students at Bucknell University formed a group called the Bucknell Caucus for Economic Justice (BCEJ). They took on research and conducted interviews to demonstrate the inferior conditions under which staff at Bucknell worked. In their research, the BCEJ consulted with the staff members at Bucknell University and discovered many incidents in which managers and supervisors infringed upon the rights of the staff members, often those in the lowest wage bracket.
Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC) formed at Georgetown University in 1996
to support workers' rights. In the fall
of 2001, a group of students, headed by the GSC, formed the Living Wage
Coalition (LWC) in order to guarantee University workers an income to meet their
subsistence needs. The students held meetings on how to take action and organized
breakfast events with workers to hear their grievances and concerns. By 2002, the administration agreed to raise
the minimum wage of workers directly employed by the university to $10.25 per
Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts college just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had long been respected as an institution with a strong commitment to social justice. While the College had pioneered such practices as co-education and comprehensive financial aid, by 2000 many College staff—including those in the environmental and dining services departments—were paid just above poverty levels for Delaware County, where the College and the majority of its workers reside. In the fall of 2000, a group of students began to talk with staff about the College’s employment practices.
Johns Hopkins University community demand a living wage for campus and health system employees, 1996-2000
In December 1994, the city of Baltimore passed a city ordinance mandating that employees of companies receiving city contracts be paid a living wage (defined as a wage that keeps a family of four above the federally determined poverty level adjusted yearly for cost of living increases and inflation).
In 2006, non-unionized janitors at the University of Miami earned as little as $6.40 an hour and received no health insurance. Demanding higher wages and better working conditions, these janitors of mostly Haitian and Cuban descent began a campaign against the University of Miami with leadership from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).