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Illinois: Living Wage Campaign to Host Conference in April Featuring Barbara Ehrenreich
The Daily Northwestern
Lark Turner

February 28, 2011
View the Original Article

The Northwestern Living Wage Campaign will bring author Barbara Ehrenreich to campus in April to lead off a two-day conference discussing the validity and viability of implementing a living wage at NU.

The public conference, co-sponsored by the American Studies Program, For Members Only and the NU Community Development Corps, will begin at 7 p.m. April 14 with Ehrenreich's keynote speech and continue April 15 with panels and a lunch in Norris University Center's Louis Room, said Weinberg junior Kellyn Lewis, the co-chair of the LWC.

"We just wanted to put something together that emphasizes the intersection between the academic side of the living wage issue and the side of trying to get a policy implemented at Northwestern," said Weinberg senior Jordan Fein, the director for research for the LWC.

Ehrenreich is the well-known author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," in which she works minimum wage jobs and attempts to survive on those funds. She's also written "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream," which explores white-collar unemployment.

The author, whose books are often required reading in classes at NU, is an ideal selection for the keynote speaker and a way to get a large portion of the student body engaged, said Weinberg senior Michael Waxman, the director of worker organizing for the LWC, who helped get Ehrenreich to campus.

"It's important for our community to hear what she has to say," said Lewis.

In an interview with The Daily earlier this month, University President Morton Schapiro said he didn't know who the LWC was planning to bring for the conference, but he wanted to attend.

"I think it's wonderful to get a dialogue going," he said. "I'm not interested in debating anybody, but I would sit in the audience and see if I could learn something."

The second day of the conference will feature three two-hour panels with three or four speakers each, as well as a moderator, Fein said. Speakers will include NU workers, which Fein said he hopes helps further the LWC's goal of "ending the culture of invisibility" for workers on campus.

The LWC expects about 1,000 people to attend the conference, Waxman said, and hopes the attendees include NU faculty, staff and students as well as members of the Evanston and Chicago communities.

"The conference will hopefully serve to engage the Northwestern student body, which has been kind of latent on this issue," Lewis said.

The campaign began in November 2009 and has had an at-times contentious relationship with the NU administration. Thus far the administration has moved no closer to establishing a wage of $13.23 for its contract workers, like food service and janitorial workers. That county-specific figure is an estimate obtained from the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights' Illinois Self-Sufficiency Report.

Though the NU administration has taken no steps to increase workers' wages, last spring it extended certain ‘community benefits' to all workers, like library privileges and the ability to buy Ryan Field parking spots, in response to the campaign.

Though the campaign has yet to invite specific people on campus to the event, Fein said the group would "obviously love" for administrators including Schapiro, Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Eugene Sunshine and Vice President for Student Affairs Bill Banis to attend.

Because the campaign has sparked a debate about the economic viability of providing a living wage for workers, the event's organizers hope to draw students from all sides of the debate to the conference, including Schapiro, who has historically opposed the campaign because he believes it is not economically sound.

"We don't necessarily agree on the economics, to say the least," said Schapiro, a labor economist himself.

Some of the panelists will be economists, Fein said.

"If Schapiro's looking for these answers, then this is a place he can find them," he said.

Waxman said the conference may recruit more supporters of the campaign and, "at the least," convince critics to consider the possibility of implementing a living wage at NU.

Ideally, Fein said the outcome of the conference would be Schapiro's stamp of approval for a living wage. Primarily, though, the conference's goals are the same as the campaign's, he said.

"Everything the Living Wage Campaign is doing is about ending the divide between workers and students at Northwestern," Fein said. "It's about respecting all members of our community."