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Organizing for Better Wages Across Sectors at Swarthmore College

Left Voice interviewed members of Solidarity at Swat, a group which has been organizing for higher wages at Swarthmore College. The campaign exposes the real values of the administration at a college that claims to be progressive.

Solidarity at Swat

June 26, 2023
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You are currently organizing a living wage campaign at Swarthmore College. Can you talk a little bit about your demands? 

Solidarity at Swat started after a Swarthmore College alum, John Braxton ‘70, spoke on campus at an event organized by members of Swarthmore’s Young Democratic Socialists of America and suggested that we find a material issue that unites people on campus. Staff wages were previously raised to a  $15 minimum, but student wages were not raised alongside this and remained quite low. We started advocating for a student-worker minimum wage of $15. At that time, we rhetorically showed support for staff wage increases and made the case that a raise in student wages would also induce an increase in staff wages. 

As time passed, not only did we realize that advancing only one concrete demand would not build enough solidarity, but also that it would neither create organizing power nor set us on the path to victory. Through our organizing and discussions, especially with dining center workers and environmental service technicians (people who clean dormitories and other spaces across campus), we reformulated our demands. In particular, we demanded a $5 raise for all workers across campus and an appropriate response to understaffing issues that pressure workers to take on extra shifts or cover other people’s shifts without additional compensation. While we have not made formal demands in the following regards, we have also been having organizing conversations with staff and faculty about the lack of wage transparency, paucity of tenure-track positions, the persistent absence of on-site childcare, and more. 

We want all of these issues to be solved by the college, which would entail increasing wages to an actual living wage, increasing the number of staff members in the dining hall and environmental services, providing better wage transparency for all workers, increasing tenure lines for faculty, and establishing on-campus child-care, as many comparable institutions have. We believe that the workers on our campus deserve a living wage and should not have to work multiple jobs. In fact, the situation is so bad at Swarthmore that there are even professors who engage in additional economic activities to make some extra income, often for childcare expenses. That is why, at our rallies, we often used a chant that some of us learned at the Temple University Graduate Students Association (TUGSA) strike: Just one job, not two jobs, not three, not four, not five. 

While our demands were not fulfilled with this year’s raise, the wage increase was relatively significant. This year, the three pay grades for student wages were $11.24, $11.82, and $12.39. The college has now guaranteed that all students will have a $15 minimum wage by July 1, 2024 and that a majority of students will have a $15 minimum wage by July 1, 2023. While a $15 wage is quite paltry at this time, this is still a substantial raise of 16-21%. Raises for faculty and staff are less impressive but still significant. All “eligible” staff saw a 5.25% increase in wages, and to bring the new minimum wage to $17/hr for “regular, hourly” staff workers, some staff saw nearly an 8% increase in wages. Moreover, faculty were also given a wage increase between 7.3% and 9%, depending on their rank.

As we work towards a more democratic Swarthmore College, we hope to connect our demands to broader visions of social justice. Recently, a group of students called the Affinity Group Coalition brought up multiple demands to Swarthmore College, including the removal of the Board’s ban on ethical divestment and providing adequate funding for student leaders who are not even paid to make the college a more welcoming place for students from different backgrounds. And this is just one of many groups on campus.

Swarthmore is among the country’s most elite institutions, with a massive endowment. It also positions itself as a social justice university. Can you talk about this contradiction between how Swarthmore describes itself and what it is doing to the workers on campus? 

This is a major problem that has come up repeatedly in the history of labor organizing at this institution. In conversations we have had with organizers who were involved in organizing to raise non-student staff wages in the late 90s and early 2000s, it has been mentioned that Swarthmore rhetorically abused its position as a “Quaker institution” that valued social justice in order to try and quash unrest around labor issues. It is often used as a smoke screen by the college in order to justify their inaction. Recently, we had a rally that included a march to the Board of Managers’ meeting. As we sang outside, the chair of the Board came out and told us to ask him questions. When we asked if the Board was representative of worker needs and if it could advocate for them, the Chair of the Board responded that this was a Quaker board and, as such, members of the Board were not representatives. This language and the “Quaker values,” which Swarthmore rhetorically claims to have, are used to undermine worker representation and continue their inaction. The rhetoric is used as an instrument to keep workers in poverty. 

Like many other colleges that tout themselves as “progressive,” Swarthmore is glad to constantly use the language of diversity and inclusion. However, it is quite clear that having such low wages makes inclusivity an impossibility. Even if Swarthmore does accept some students from low-income backgrounds (not that many, given that roughly two thirds of our student body comes from the wealthiest quintile of families), students have vastly different experiences at this college depending on their wealth and access to resources. Students who have to work every week for crumbs have less time to study, less time to enjoy college, and less time to care for themselves. They are working to make ends meet and to send money home. 

Despite being one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, data shows that very few  low-income students experience promised social mobility after attending Swarthmore College. If a Swarthmore degree can’t fulfill these promises of job security and social mobility we’re told higher education will provide, what degree will, and for how many people? Such economic inequality entirely forecloses the possibility of any social justice or inclusion, especially racial and gender justice, for which the school claims to be a leader. A lower wage disproportionately harms and affects racial minorities because they are more likely to be low-income. As the school spends tens of millions on new buildings and programming to increase and maintain its prestige, these choices make Swarthmore College’s rhetoric look like a joke at best, and at worst, a cruel mask for inhumane working conditions. 

What kind of actions have you all organized to fight for workers’ rights on campus? How has the administration responded? 

We have held a variety of background and organizing events to raise class consciousness, militancy, and interest on campus, such as talks by labor organizers in Philadelphia, movie nights, and events with food, such as a May Day celebration. However, our events that led to interface with the administration are most prominently a petition for a $15 student worker minimum wage, articles that prompted responses from administration, a meeting with the administration, and three rallies (two of which included marches). 

As we launched our petition, we set up tables all around the school to speak with people about the importance of worker rights and pay on campus. These conversations increased our membership and helped our petition gather many signatures. We also wrote an op-ed in the Phoenix, “15 is a Humble Request.” Once we had close to 1,000 signatures and support from various faculty and clubs, we sent our petition to the office of the President and asked for a public response to the campus. However, we received a private response about how the issue “merits further study and analysis” and that the President, along with other colleagues, would be back in touch later. 

After an article called “Swarthmore Owes Its Students More” was published in the school paper, the article’s author received a private email from the Vice President of Finance, asking to meet about wages. We had an unsuccessful meeting, which we reported in the article “Update on Our Movement for a Fifteen Dollar Student Worker Minimum Wage.”

We asked the administration for comment on our article with hopes that they would make some kind of commitment to the student body about transparency or wages, but we only received another non-response. 

Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your letter. We appreciate your continued engagement on this subject, and though we do not agree with all of the characterizations you make in the piece, we all agree on the value and importance of student employees who help support the College across many offices. As we have discussed, we’ve been looking closely at student employee pay for the past several months, and with the budgeting process underway, we are optimistic that we will be able to raise student wages for the coming fiscal year. We look forward to updating you on this important issue as the budget process moves forward.

As our organizing conversations continued, we reformulated our demands. Soon, a group of Dining Center workers also wrote a letter to management, published as “An Open Letter to the Managers of Swarthmore College, From a Group of Dining Center Workers,” about low pay and problems with understaffing. And in another article, “It Is Time to Take Action for Workers’ Rights,” we articulated these demands and announced an action for the end of the week. 

We flyered, chalked, and tabled in preparation for this event and had a considerable turnout, which included members of faculty and staff. Students gave speeches about their experiences, the history of successful organizing, and more. We chanted loudly, played music, created supplies like posters and banners, and brainstormed ideas with people who wanted to get more involved with labor organizing on campus. During the rally, the authors of the article “It Is Time to Take Action for Workers’ Rights received a private email from the Vice President of Finance that included a reassurance that wages would be raised. However, there was no information about how much. For all we knew, it could be a decrease in real wages after accounting for inflation. 

Before the rally, Solidarity at Swat also sent the administration an email stating the demands and asking for agreement or a counter-proposal. If the administration sent a counter-proposal, we would participate in the creation of democratic infrastructure to return worker feedback. We read this email out loud during the rally and announced that we would be back next week, either to agitate more, or to have a party because the administration agreed to the demands. 

There was no public response to the letter, only another private non-response, and so we did another rally, this time with speakers from faculty. We marched around campus, through buildings, and ended our march in front of President Valerie’s Smith “house” (should be described more accurately as a mansion). We still did not receive any public response, and the administration had repeatedly alluded to the Board of Managers meeting for when the budget would be approved. As such, we held our next rally on the day when the Board of Managers met. 

After a short rally and some brief speeches, we marched to the Board of Managers meeting while we sang a parody of “Bella Ciao” that we called “Pay Us More! As we sang, the Board of Manager Chair walked out and said that we should speak to him. Many students asked questions about governance, wages, and the budgeting process at Swarthmore. Most of his answers were quite evasive, and he often made allusions to math or the Quaker Board to fend off questions about why Swarthmore is so stingy or why there is not more representative governance of the school. While none of the answers were satisfying, we considered this encounter a huge success since it showed just how remarkably undemocratic and inhumane Swarthmore College is about worker rights and pay. The lack of accountable infrastructure at this school is jarring, and it was on clear display that day. 

How do you see this struggle as connected to the broader labor movement at this moment? 

There has been a substantial increase in labor organizing at both undergraduate institutions and universities in the past few years, particularly due to the economic crises exacerbated by the pandemic. This is proof that universities and colleges are not disconnected from “the real world.” 

Since the transnationalization of corporations, and the deindustrialization of “the Global North” that began in the 70s, workers have simultaneously lost access to a relatively stable wage and experienced an increasing cost of living. During this time, universities have become some of the most crucial service sector employers/exploiters in the country. Additionally, with exorbitant tuition spikes over the last 50 years, the privatization of higher education, and the increased amount of student debt that has been taken out for the false promise of social mobility, all the in the midst of rapidly rising inflation, universities have acted as one of the primary contributors to the debt crisis. The debt crisis is a critical and necessary part of creating a flexible, more easily exploitable, and vulnerable working class. Moreover, faculty pay-decreases, precarity, and de-tenureship are part of how the academy’s proletarianization is increasing on all levels, whether for graduate students, undergraduate workers, or faculty. These worsening material conditions are in conjunction with the universities deepening their relationship with the military industrial complex, the university’s ideological role as a knowledge factory that increasingly produces and rewards ideas and intellectuals that naturalize war and inequality to placate workers, and the disappearing boundary between the leaders of universities and the corporate sector, as many board members serve as directors and policy-makers for some of the biggest companies in the country. 

Like universities across the country, Swarthmore’s refusal to meet basic worker needs shows that it relies on the disorganization of the working class and sees workers not as human beings with families who deserve dignified lives, but rather as cheap labor — many workers on campus who work multiple jobs to survive and raise their families are also from some of the most vulnerable sections of the working class. These workers are disproportionately racialized, gender-oppressed, and elderly workers (many of whom lack enough money to retire because of the 2008 crisis and would do so otherwise) from predominantly Black-and-brown de-industrialized, under-resourced areas like Chester and Philadelphia. These are locations where public resources and jobs are scarce, and rampant political corruption and gentrification cost people their lives and livelihood. It is not an overstatement to say that Swarthmore, like its neighboring university-employers, benefits from these conditions. These conditions essentially supply the institution with a reserve army of under-employed workers, and very few people, because of the workers’ minority and dependent status, question their poor treatment and low wages. 

In the long run, like the rest of the labor movement, we want to eliminate the absurdity of Swarthmore College, an institution with a 3 billion dollar endowment, acting as if it is benevolent to a nearby, low-income city, Chester, while it sends trash to Chester’s heavily polluting incinerator (an example of textbook environmental racism) and pays its many employees from Chester poverty wages. We believe that the wealth of Swarthmore College should not belong to a small group of people and stingily traunched to a small group of students. Swarthmore College should be open admissions, its wealth should be used to pay off the debts of the people who work there, and its resources should be entirely open to Chester. What we are working towards, in the long term, is real democracy for all the people, not an elite subset, and this is something that will not happen outside of the context of an organized, internationalist, worker-led progressive labor movement rooted in expansive, people-centered visions of social justice. And, we might add, a brief review of the student movements in the 70s, which sought to re-imagine the university as we know it, shows that there is almost nothing new in our demands or our analysis. And so we believe that we will win!

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