By Abiola Akanni
For over a decade, now, the St. Mary’s community has been fighting for wage equity here on campus. In 2002, the faculty passed a resolution that stated that a living wage for all employees was necessary. In 2006, 13 students, with overwhelming community support, sat in on then President Maggie O’Brien’s office to demand a living wage policy. Most recently, in 2012, a massive push of hundreds of students rallied behind the SGA resolution in favor of fair wages fro St. Mary’s College employees.
Our current wagescape is worthless. The staff who work here at St. Mary’s are at at the bottom of the wage scale, the majority of them are on food stamps, and whether we like to admit it or not, the plain truth is that without these workers our institution literally could not function. And yet, we do very little if anything to ensure that we take care of the most essential elements to keeping our college running. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum we have our administrative staff, who are steadily climbing their way to the highest tax bracket in the United States,to use Interim President Ian Newbould as an example .
However, that being said there is no easy solution. Things are of course different now than in the times of past living wage pushes – our school is suffering something of an identity crisis. We’ve lost our president, a decent chunk of our budget, and I argue we’ve lost our Way. The St. Mary’s Way, a guiding document of our community, states that this is a place where we are “examining and shaping the functional, ethical values of our changing world.”
While some employees are living hand to mouth and working more than two jobs, one of which requires them to try to keep our school both clean and safe for our needs, our Presidents have been joining the ranks of the 1%. While this structure most certainly reflects the institutional hand of St. Mary’s shaping the ethical values of our changing world, I think even the most cursory examination would reveal that we’re shaping them wrong.
Our unjust wage policies seem to contradict our liberal arts education. So what if an English degree, or a Philosophy degree, or an Art History degree doesn’t guarantee a high-paying job, we say, do what makes you happy! Engage in scholarly pursuits and lend yourself to the greater good of our state, country, and world! This account of what we ought to do in college – while accruing up to $100,000 in student loans -abjectly overlooks a simple truth: upon graduation we need to have a place to live, food to eat, and some extra money to pay back those loans.
As wage injustice and wage gaps keep increasing in the United States, a trend which St. Mary’s is contributing to, the number of jobs available to us that would pay enough for us to eat, live, and pay back these loans sharks. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that in embracing just wage policies, we would reverse the nationwide story of the dissolving middle class. What I am suggesting is that in embracing just wage policies, we would be putting our money where our mouths are. We’d be paying people enough to live, on the one end (which would encourage others in the local labor market to do the same); and not constantly increasing tuition to pay executives (which is an impediment to our mission of providing an affordable education), on the other end.
Enter the St. Mary’s Wages proposal, a wage justice proposal with broad on-campus support. The proposal would set all wages on campus relative to a living wage: the lowest paid school employees would receive exactly a living wage, other categories of employees, including both faculty and administrators, would be paid raises based on this benchmark. Adopting this proposal would guarantee a living wage to all college employees – one that wouldn’t deteriorate or disappear even with inflation over time. According the the website, “The caps on higher salaries would eliminate one of the drivers of costs, limiting future tuition increases and improving the college’s ability to implement its mission of inclusiveness.” Aside from St. Mary’s, many other colleges struggle with the same dilemma we are faced with in terms of how to pay their employees properly and fairly for the work they do. Since we would be the first higher education institution in the country to implement such an intricate and well-designed plan, we would have the opportunity to serve as a model for other schools and stop runaway costs and try to protect wage justice for many other employees.
To learn more about the proposal, enter the conversation, or find out how you can help the push for wage justice at St. Mary’s, please visit stmaryswages.org.