Living Wage Campaign: Third Time's a Charm?

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A dedicated group of St. Mary’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni has once again come together in a campaign to restructure the salary ratio of all employees of the College. United under the banner of “St. Mary’s Wages, the St. Mary’s Way,” this group has drafted a proposal for establishing a benchmark minimum salary for the lowest-paid full-time employees on campus, and capping the salaries of the highest-paid employees to only 7.5 to 10 times the lowest salary.

The benchmark salary is designed to adjust with inflation, a sustainable solution which ensures that the lowest-paid employees will be paid enough to keep up with the cost of living in St. Mary’s County—a concept known as making a “living wage.” The other goal of this proposal is to avoid using the strategy of temporary fixes that have been implemented in response to past reincarnations of the living wage campaign.

The proposal, which is available to read in-full on the St. Mary’s Wage’s website (“http://www.stmaryswages.org),  “seeks to align our salary structure with [the College’s] mission,” which is to keep St. Mary’s a place “where people foster relationships based upon mutual respect.” One faculty member who has overseen the creation of the proposal, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science Sahar Shafqat, said that this proposal “explicitly addresses…one of the huge massive inequalities among people on campus that is antithetical to [St. Mary’s] values,”

Laraine Glidden, Professor Emerita of Psychology, has been an involved faculty member in the drafting of this proposal. She characterized the resurgence of the living wage issue this year as different from those in years past because this time, the campaign is presenting its own solutions to the problem, rather than just making the campus community  aware of the problem. “I think the big difference is that in the past, the living wage idea has stood by itself  and a lot of people were supportive,” said Glidden, “but the crucial argument was ‘How are we going to pay for it?’”

Now, however, the living wage campaign organizers have created a financial model in which administrative salaries are capped in order to leave more available income for the lowest-paid employees. “We’re linking it to income disparity…I think the proposal is very good at laying out the increasing disparity over the last decade, and it’s very clear where the increases went,” Glidden added in regards to the income gap resulting from the raises in administrative pay.

The discussion of the living wage issue comes at a time in which college administrators and the Board of Trustees are looking for ways to maintain an affordable tuition at St. Mary’s despite a national trend of growing higher education costs. “One big factor to [rising tuition rates] is executive compensation,” said Shafqat, “and I think for lots of reasons we need to discuss changing the whole salary structure, partly because of the living wage issue and partly to get a handle on tuition.”

As a result of the admissions shortfall and subsequent budget cuts that occurred in May, the Business and Finance Office released a compensation plan for the upcoming fiscal year. This plan will give the lowest-paid employees of the College (those who make under $55,000 a year) a one-percent increase in pay starting in January, and those in the highest earning bracket (over $150,000 a year) will have a five-percent decrease in pay from September to May.

Such financial measures, living wage supporters say, are a step in the right direction for their cause. “It basically saves money…with the most wealthy people sacrificing salaries, and the lowest paid people not only not sacrificing [their salaries], but actually getting a small salary increase,” said Glidden.

There are 110 staff members who are also members of the AFSCME (Association of Federal, State, County Municipal Employees) union. Only twenty percent of these members make under $25,000. Brad Newkirk, a chemistry lab technician and the union president for the staff at St. Mary’s under AFSCME, says he fully supports the living wage proposal, but has reservations about how it might be implemented.

“If we supported every aspect of this plan, that means that the union is only supporting twenty percent of the members of our unit, and we’re just not going to do that,” said Newkirk. “I would love to see our lowest earners see a raise of that nature, but if the wage earners just above that or someone who’s been [working] here for a while doesn’t get anywhere close to that, it’s not really fair.”

However, Newkirk also stated that he thinks that this is “the faculty and administration that will be affected more,” as the pay cuts to the higher earning brackets are what will finance the pay increase for lower-wage employees.

A decrease in the presidential salary offered to potential candidates during the Board of Trustees’ search for a new college president is another factor that must be considered in light of the restructuring of salaries that must occur if the living wage proposal is to be implemented.

When recruiting candidates for the presidency, a search firm hired by the Board of Trustees would usually try to offer a competitive salary package in an attempt to attract high-quality leaders. However, some think that if the Board were to hire a search firm that is willing to offer candidates a more modest salary, then the College would find a leader who adheres closely to the College’s mission. “If we are to recruit candidates who really share our values,” said Shafqat, “then that’s a great way to weed out folks who are coming here for the wrong reasons and actually attracts really interesting people who would come here for the right reasons.”

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) has spearheaded the student contingent of the living wage campaign in years past, and the club is planning to host events in the coming weeks to discuss the proposal on all levels of the College’s administration. Abiola Akanni, junior and president of SDS, said, “we’re planning a forum to have on [Wednesday, Sept. 22] to bring the discussion to the first-years and get them involved in the conversation. We’re also organizing and planning activities to hit SGA (Student Government Association), the faculty senate, the Board of Trustees, and staff meetings.”

Newkirk added that he hoped members of the union’s bargaining unit will “be involved [in these proposal forums] to at least make sure that other people know where we stand,” but that the bargaining unit reserves the right to discuss how their wages should be distributed if there is any extra income that would become available to them.

Two alumni who were involved in the 2006 and 2012 campaigns for a living wage are heartened to see the issue being brought to the forefront of campus issues once again. G. Paul Blundell, ’07, was one of the students who participated in the sit-in at the office of former president Maggie O’Brien. “The concessions won from the administration back in 2006 by the campaign I was involved in, while significant, were a far cry from a living wage,” he said. “St. Mary’s moving in a more egalitarian and democratic direction is not only the principled and wise thing to do, but it would also do oodles to communicate to students that living by principle is possible and that demanding that the institutions of your world behave morally is an entirely reasonable demand.”

Caroline Selle, ’12, hopes that this proposal will be met with a positive reaction from College leaders. “I think staff, faculty, and students have learned a lot over the years and understand much better what it will take to convince the administration and motivate those holding the power to act,” she said. “Hopefully, the new administrators will recognize both St. Marys’ values and what they mean. Community doesn’t mean rigid hierarchy.”

Despite the mostly positive response to the living wage campaign’s proposal, SDS member and senior Ashok Chandwaney hopes that those who do not completely agree with the proposal or think that there is a better method with which the College can better provide for its lowest-paid employees will be present at the upcoming forums and voice their opinions. “It’d be nice to have some constructive and engaging conversations about different ways to implement the plan,” he said.

Chandwaney also stressed that the College is “at the ideal time for this campaign,” since one president has resigned and the College is in the process of finding a new leader. “The Board of Trustees knows that their job is to be good shepherds of the community, and if they hear really loud and clear from the community that wage justice is something that we care about, then hopefully they will take this into account while searching for a new president.”

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