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Northwestern University: How badly do you want a Living Wage?
Hana Suckstorff

October 5, 2010
View the Original Article

The Living Wage Campaign has resurfaced in the news lately, from recent trainings to the NU administration's police-enforced refusal to allow students involved with the campaign to directly present petitions to the trustees.

The campaign is an issue that provokes a wide range of passionate responses, from full-throated support to "Can't we forget about this now?" For my part, I identify (mostly) with the former. I would love to see all campus workers (and frankly everyone else in the world, but that's far too idealistic - baby steps) able to provide adequately for their families and have access to all the benefits, such as medical insurance, they need to be happy, healthy individuals.

But I say I'm only "mostly" supportive of the campaign because I think the LWC members are making a mistake in insisting, as they do on the campaign website, that students not bear the financial cost of a living wage.

The administration maintains that it will not pay for this out of the endowment. I don't fully understand their rationale, but these people (as well as several of my finance-oriented friends who agree with them) know labor and higher education economics better than I do, so I'll trust their judgment.

If the administration won't fork over anything extra for this proposal, I don't see any other option than for students themselves to bear the financial cost.

Northwestern's online FAQ in response to the campaign states that fees and expenses would rise to $1,000 for each student living in a dorm, plus a general tuition increase, to cover the costs of a living wage for campus workers. Around 300 of us walked up and down Sheridan Road in a rally last February to fight for this initiative, but are we willing to shell out an additional $1,000+ so that workers on this campus can live above the poverty line?

Of course, this complicates things. Most of us don't pay our tuition, our parents do. Granted, tuition has increased so much recently that an extra $1,000 seems relatively paltry, but I'm guessing my parents wouldn't be too pleased at the prospect.

Maybe such an increase means your parents can't float you an extra $1,000 for miscellaneous, fun expenses, like concerts or nights at the Keg. Are you willing to give up your daily latte so the guy who makes it at Norbucks can feed his family?

Call me crazy, call me hopelessly naive and utopian and remind me that "Utopia" literally means "nowhere" in Greek, but I'd like to think that I would be. I'd like to think that I love my brothers and sisters in this human family enough that I'd relinquish some of the luxuries in my life so that Eleanor over at Willard or Elery at Allison (my two favorite lunch ladies) can afford a higher standard of living. Of course, if I lived up to that rhetoric, I probably wouldn't spend more money on pleasure reading than I donate to charity.

Maybe the University really can pay for a living wage and simply doesn't want to. Maybe one of us will be the future labor economist who figures this thing out. In the mean time, the campaign should make a compelling economic case for why the administration can afford this or start asking us the difficult questions we don't want to face.