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Illinois: Living Wage Campaign Kicks Off Weekend Conference with Keynote Speaker
The Daily Northwestern
Emma O'Connor

April 15, 2011
View the Original Article

According to Barbara Ehrenreich, low-wage workers are America's major philanthropists.

"They are the ones making a sacrifice," Ehrenreich said in Leverone Auditorium on Thursday."They are the ones that everyone is in debt to."

Ehrenreich addressed the plight of the working poor as the keynote speaker of the Living Wage Conference, a two-day event hosted by the Living Wage Campaign and sponsored by the American Studies Program, the Northwestern Community Development Corps, For Members Only and The Berger-Marks Foundation.

Campaigners encouraged those entering the auditorium to "sign in," or add their names to a form that served as both a sign-in sheet and a living wage petition.

"It allows us to send more information to people who are interested, but it's also a petition," said Adam Yalowitz, co-director of the LWC. "It's something we always do."

The Weinberg senior said this is a common practice. Though Yalowitz said the group did not intend to send the names as a "formal petition," he did say that the sheets clearly read "petition" at the top and called it a "petition sheet." He said that he wished the group had used sign-in sheets that were not marked as petitions but noted not all students signed the sheets.

"It was probably a blurry line," Yalowitz said. "I guess I wish we hadn't done it that way."

In total, more than 600 students attended the lecture by Ehrenreich, an independent journalist and author who chronicled her attempt to support herself through low-wage jobs in her well-known book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America." Ehrenreich also investigated white-collar unemployment in "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."

The Living Wage Campaign selected Ehrenreich as the conference's keynote speaker because she understands low-wage struggles, said Jordan Fein, the director of research for the LWC .

"She's an authority on what it's like to work as a low-wage worker," said Fein, a Weinberg senior. "We wanted people to hear from one of the most noted social commentators in the country about why this is an important issue."

Will Bloom, an LWC organizer, said Ehrenreich's experiences while conducting research for "Nickel and Dimed" are relevant to NU.

"There are several hundred people who work on campus who have those same experiences but who students never hear from," Bloom, a Weinberg sophomore, said. "I hope students will be able to translate Ehrenreich's experiences to people working on this campus."

Ehrenreich said inequality often goes unaddressed because affluent people blame poverty on the poor before addressing broader institutional and systemic problems.

Ehrenreich said it is NU's moral responsibility to establish a living wage for campus workers, even if they are under contract with an outside company.

"If you work full-time, you ought to be able to live at some basic level of decency and safety," Ehrenreich said. "At least, you ought to be able to live indoors."

Ehrenreich said she was happy to speak at the request of students and workers, rather than the administration, because she could more freely raise questions about why the administration has not established a living wage.

Fein said he is glad that Ehrenreich discussed, and ultimately refuted, the administration's counter-arguments against the living wage.

"This whole conference is addressing the administration and the president," Fein said. "This is for everyone who says to those workers that they don't deserve to have a basic standard of living."

University President and economics Prof. Morton Schapiro was not present at the event, although according to Fein, Schapiro had other commitments during the keynote and will attend the April 15 economics panel.

In an interview with The Daily during Winter Quarter, Schapiro said he planned to attend the conference.

"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."

Ehrenreich said any institution that does not provide a living wage should reconsider its economics.

"If you have a business plan that includes paying employees less than they can live on, you don't have a business plan," Ehrenreich said. "You have a plan based on exploiting the desperation of very poor people."

Max Kirschenbaum, a Weinberg sophomore, said although he enjoyed Ehrenreich's lecture, he does not think all her arguments were bulletproof.

"I found it very informative and I agree with a lot of the policy recommendations, but I think that some of the statistics she gave were misleading and she might have omitted some details," Kirschenbaum said. "Some of her arguments were stronger than others."

Mallory Mattimore-Malan, a SESP sophomore, said she attended Ehrenreich's talk because she already supports the Living Wage Campaign.

"I think a living wage is something that as a university, as a respectable institution, we should have," Mattimore-Malan said.

Katherine Driessen contributed reporting.